3 Questions Researchers Should Ask About Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Jessica C. Harris is an assistant professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Chris Linder is an associate professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia.

Starting in 2016, we began conceptualizing and co-editing our book, Intersections of Identity and Sexual Violence on Campus: Centering Minoritized Students’ Experiences. When people ask us what exactly the book is about, we often reply that it provides a critical approach to campus sexual violence. Since the book was published, we have reflected on what we learned from the editing process. But even more, we find ourselves asking what makes this book and our work critical. What does a “critical approach” mean, especially as it relates to campus sexual violence?

While our answers are always changing, we understand that critical approaches to sexual violence account for systems of domination, power and privilege. Critical approaches challenge dominant ways of knowing and expose hidden assumptions that are often taken for granted. Critical approaches center the lived experiences of minoritized individuals who are pushed to the margins by those systems of domination, dominant ways of knowing and hidden assumptions.

As a result of our reflections, we wrote this essay to further explore critical approaches to campus sexual violence research. We interrogate three seemingly straightforward questions that researchers must re-evaluate with a critical lens in an attempt to eradicate — not just prevent — campus sexual violence.

Whom Are We Studying?

Whom we study may be, for some researchers, the most straightforward question within campus sexual violence research. When examining the existing research on campus sexual violence, one might discover that we, as researchers, study women students and sexual violence or perhaps men as perpetrators of sexual violence. Straightforward populations, right? But if we aim to critically interrogate campus sexual violence, we should be very skeptical of seemingly straightforward answers, because they are often riddled with assumptions and essentialism.

For example, for those of us who study women students, whom do we mean by “women”? Do we really mean white women? Or do we mean women across racial and ethnic identities? Are we only including cisgender women students without naming them as such?

We must be clear as to what we mean when referencing identity and whom we study. Clarity not only helps the reader understand whom they are reading about but also helps avoid further minoritization of already minoritized campus communities. For instance, claiming that research focuses on women when it really only accounts for white cisgender women maintains an assumption that white cis women are the prototype, or norm, by which all women’s experiences are measured and understood. We must be explicit from the beginning (not just in our methods sections) about whom we are researching.

When we are explicit, we can identify who is represented within campus sexual violence research and who is not. Being explicit allows us to center students who hold identities that are rarely, if ever, centered in such research. For example, when it is made explicit that research on men and women students who are survivors of sexual violence refers to cisgender heterosexual white men and women survivors, we can readily identify a gap in research that explores the experiences of trans and/or women of color and/or men of color survivors. In being explicit, we can identify the intersections of identities that have not yet been accounted for, and may be masked, within existing research.

What Are We Studying?

In our research, we must also interrogate what we are studying. When asked, “What are you studying?” we might answer, “Campus sexual violence.” Or we may answer, “Sexual violence prevention” or “The connection between alcohol and campus sexual violence.” Indeed, those latter two replies may be common, as the majority of research on campus sexual violence focuses on sexual violence prevention and/or sexual violence and alcohol.

But unfortunately, focusing only on surface-level issues like alcohol use or abuse masks and maintains systems of oppression that influence sexual violence on campus. In short, researchers exploring those topics often gloss over the deeper “What?” of sexual violence.

If we aim to eradicate sexual violence on campus, we must move beyond research that interrogates individual or surface-level issues. We must shift what we explore so that our research interrogates systems, issues and contexts that influence and perpetuate such violence. Researchers should ask, “What systems, structures and histories must we focus on in an attempt to better interrogate and destabilize a culture of campus sexual violence?”

For instance, researchers have repeatedly explored how alcohol intensifies men students’ sexual aggression, which may influence their perpetration of sexual violence. Here, the “What?” centers on sexual violence, alcohol and male aggression. But if we asked a different “What?” question, we challenge the assumption that alcohol is the precursor to male aggression and, subsequently, sexual violence. If we interrogate what it is about the campus context, the campus drinking culture and the patriarchal systems and sexist environment that encourages and condones men’s aggression as a tool to dominate others, then we may be better equipped to dismantle the roots of sexual violence.

When Are We Studying?

As we worked on our book, we came across an article that referred to campus sexual violence as an epidemic. That word, in connection with campus sexual violence, did not sit well with us. We could not put our fingers on why exactly we were uneasy, so we looked up the word “epidemic” in an online dictionary. Webster told us that an epidemic “affects a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time and is characterized by very widespread growth or extent.” The response in our heads was simply, “No.”

Why? Because claiming that sexual violence is an epidemic is to negate and excuse the violent finding and taking of the United States. Specifically, it excuses how white men, throughout history, have used rape as a tool of colonization, domination, terrorization and control. For example, white colonizers introduced a patriarchal and white supremacist system to the North American continent through the rape of indigenous women’s bodies. Their violent terrorization not only asserted control over those women’s bodies but also over indigenous culture.

When violent histories are acknowledged, it becomes clear that sexual violence has not become an epidemic. Researchers must account for this history throughout the research process — from the conceptualization of research questions to the writing up of data. When asking questions, analyzing data and writing reports, scholars must be sensitized to the fact that sexual violence has always been around and disproportionately affects and violates communities of color.

Additionally, we must be careful not to implicitly contain campus sexual violence to a specific time period. We have read many articles and books that introduce readers to campus sexual violence through recent Title IX legislation and the 2011 Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights. In fact, we may be guilty of this in our own writing. We encourage scholars to reach before 2011 and beyond current legislation, and acknowledge that sexual violence has always held a violent presence within this country and on college campuses.

Researchers must not forget that, while some may frame sexual violence as an epidemic — a disease that affects the United States — rape is a symptom of larger social diseases, including white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, ableism, genderism, capitalism and other oppressive systems. Moreover, research must interrogate how U.S. institutions of education not only exist on the very land in which these individuals and communities were violently assaulted, but also how they rest upon the histories, values and (colonial college) systems that this use of force helped to construct.

Teaching About Sexual Violence: Think Intersectional

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Intersectionality And Sexual Violence

In a year in which sexual harassment and rape have made national headlines, classroom discussions about the topic of sexual violence are more important than ever. The classroom can provide a place to consider the larger power structures in place for both victims and survivors of sexual violence as well as the perpetrators of it.

I research and write about people who are often left out of conversations about sexual violence, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer survivors. Academics who research and/or teach on sexual violence often overlook LGBTQ people in their work because this population does not fit the perfect-victim narrative. The work that I do as a feminist security scholar offers a distinctive look at how assumptions about sexual violence play out in the classroom and our research.

Those pushed to the margins of society because of their sexual orientation and gender identity experience unique vulnerabilities to violence that are missed when we overlook those identities. By including conversations about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence in discussions with students about sexual violence, instructors can broaden the framework in crucial, intersectional ways. To better understand sexual violence, instructors should work to bridge attention to anti-LGBTQ violence with attention to patriarchal social norms that drive acts of sexual violence. Making such connections can better inform students about how sexual violence and gender-based violence impact men, women, queers and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Problematic Assumptions About Gender

In my research, I focus on the context-specific analysis of sexual violence in conflict-related environments. Since the 2000 passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, such violence has drawn much more attention, even leading to the establishment of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. This center came out of the Preventing Sexual Violence initiative championed in 2015 by former U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague and the special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie.

Yet such high-profile attention to wartime sexual violence presents challenges as well. For example, some feminist international relations scholars find the new “rape as a weapon of war” narrative that has gained much media attention incomplete or even unhelpful. Part of the resistance is to the framing of women as primarily victims of violence rather than change agents in global politics. A “Monkey Cage” blog post by Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green and Sarah E. Parkinson about the language of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” explains, “Narratives that focus on a narrow subset of sexual violence — strategic rapes, with rhetorically convenient perpetrators and victims — are powerful but dangerous.” When those assumptions minimize or erase the agency of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, it can hinder any efforts to move toward community-based solutions. Another troubling aspect of this frame is how it can neglect to consider the prevalence of sexual violence before and after times of conflict.

One common assumption about sexual and gender-based violence is that it is about sex — that is, sexual desire or attraction. It is actually about power. This is critical to understand when it comes to finding ways to respond and prevent this violence. Another assumption is that men are only perpetrators of sexual violence, while a growing body of literature highlights boys’ and men’s experiences as victims of such violence. Rosemary Grey and Laura J. Shepherd write about the danger of “absent presences in our analysis” when it comes to men and sexual and gender-based violence.

A full picture of those who face insecurity because of their gender requires a context-specific analysis of which individuals may be most vulnerable to rape and other forms of gender-based violence. An intersectional feminist analysis of this violence must account for racial, ethnic, religious, social and political drivers of violence. It is essential to recognize the intersecting systems of oppression when it comes to understanding and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Queering The Conversation

Stories about LGBTQ people are often absent from discussions about sexual violence in the classroom and in research. That is true despite findings that LGBTQ students are more likely to experience sexual harassment on college campuses. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides an overview of violence over the past two decades pertaining to sexual violence and individuals who identity as LGBTQ. Sexual harassment between same-gender peers is also a concern. All of the studies point to the need for more research on this topic, and some note the difficulty of studying LGBTQ individuals as a monolithic group when the assessment of the needs and experiences of each group individually is necessary.

Antiviolence organizations that respond to violence targeting LGBTQ individuals offer some insight into how the sexual violence conversation is already shifting. In the forward to the anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Reina Gossett writes about how work to address sexual violence has evolved over the last decade along with cultural shifts regarding what is considered sexual violence. Gossett explains, “More and more people are naming interpersonal and institutional sexual violence as inextricably linked to other forms of oppression. More and more people are working to reframe who exactly they mean when they say survivors of sexual violence, and more focus is going towards centering strategies that work through prevention, intervention, reparations, accountability and ultimately collective liberation.”

The collection Gossett introduces links to disability justice, sex worker rights, gender self-determination, queer and trans liberation, and prison-industrial complex abolition. Considering how race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and disability impact a person provides necessary contexts to framing acts of perpetuating sexual violence, as well as navigating society as a survivor. As a blog post for Ms. notes, “Educating students, for example, about preferred gender pronouns, the connections between sexual assault and hate crimes, racialized gender stereotypes, and how people with different physical and mental abilities express consent, should be part of a comprehensive antiviolence strategy.”

Classroom discussions about sexual violence can be improved in important ways by queering assumptions about both perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence. Those leading these conversations should consider the following five questions:

  • How do you define sexual violence? How do you define gender-based violence?
  • How can we move the conversation in the classroom and in research about sexual violence beyond common assumptions about who is a survivor and who is a perpetrator?
  • Which voices are we including in discussions to understand and respond to sexual violence? Including perpetrators as well as survivors is important.
  • Is the conversation about sexual violence intersectional? For example, an intersectional conversation will avoid white savior tropes and heteronormative assumptions.
  • Do you discuss the role of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence? How do hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity relate to this conversation? Consider providing context about how cis privilege, monosexism and heteronormativity influence assumptions about who is a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence and how this limits our frame of understanding.

A Call For LGBTQ-Inclusive Research On Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Sarah A. Stephens is completing her bachelor of arts in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently finishing an honors thesis about survey methodology in IPV and LGBTQ research. She may be reached at her website, Please Stand Up.

Sexual Violence Research Must Be LGBTQ Inclusive

For as long as I can remember, I have heard other people say, “Rape isn’t about sex — it’s about power.” The word “power” itself is not gendered, but in the context of sexual violence dialogue, that sentence is gendered. In the early days of sexual violence and intimate partner violence research, “power” became synonymous with “patriarchy.” Nowadays we hear about “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture,” but the conversation is still highly gendered and heteronormative.

Before I address sexual violence in academe, I want to provide some background and context for my interest in the subject. When I first came out in 1994, I identified as a lesbian; today, I identify as queer. For much of my young adulthood, I was behaviorally bisexual. This means that even though I identified as a lesbian, I was not exclusively involved with feminine people.

When I was 20, I was involved with a heterosexual cisgender man. Although he would have probably exercised coercive control in any relationship, my sexual orientation intensified the situation. He used my sexuality against me, saying, “Since you’ve been with women and you’re with me now, I cannot trust you with men or women.” From his perspective, because I was (behaviorally) bisexual, I was incapable of monogamy (a tired biphobic stereotype), and therefore he was justified in cutting off the friends that I had, preventing me from making new ones and monitoring my time and actions. He timed me when I rode my bike to 7-Eleven, stating, “If you’re not back in 15 minutes, I’m coming to look for you.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control report “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation,” more than 60 percent of bisexual women experience some form of intimate partner violence or sexual violence. As a survivor of IPV, I felt simultaneously validated and depressed upon discovering this information. I knew that I was not alone, but I was saddened that the rate was so high.

Heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTQ people alike experience various types of abuse: sexual violence, coercive control, physical violence, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, reproductive control, stalking and so on. However, for LGBTQ victims, there are additional layers of victimization that are not present in cisgender, heterosexual relationships.

For example, coercive control may include the threat of being outed, which may result in the loss of employment, housing or child custody. Same-gender IPV is often seen as a “fair fight” from the perspective of law enforcement, counselors and other social workers. And the heteronormative framing of sexual violence and IPV prevents many LGBTQ victims from even realizing that what they are experiencing is abuse. As I sought more information, a hard truth revealed itself.

Two Forms Of Deafening Silence

I am originally from Oklahoma, but I was living in Texas when I came out. Those were not the best places to be queer, especially in the mid-1990s. Additionally, I grew up and came out in a time when LGBTQ people were virtually invisible. Lack of representation is incredibly invalidating and psychologically destructive. It is even worse than being the subject of debate. At least if politicians, the media, researchers and the like are talking about LGBTQ folks, we exist. For me, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the silence was deafening.

Today, I am an undergraduate sociology major with an interest in LGBTQ studies and queer theory. I am also 41 years old. I mention my age to highlight the fact that I am not where I am by accident. I am deeply invested — emotionally, psychologically and intellectually — in this field. Despite the awareness I gained last semester about the challenges of being queer in academe, my goals are still to complete my doctorate in sociology and conduct research in gender and sexuality. Specifically, I am interested in how the gendered framing of sexual violence and IPV negatively affects LGBTQ communities and the subject over all.

The 2016-17 academic year was my hardest one yet, and it is because I again encountered that deafening silence — this time, in the context of sociological research. Don’t get me wrong: I knew academe has its issues, just like the rest of society. But I was surprised to find such a complete lack of research published in mainstream sociological journals about LGBTQ individuals and communities. After all, LGBTQ issues are being represented at ever increasing rates. That is where my naivety revealed itself. I thought that if The Huffington Post, National Geographic and Vice News were reporting on LGBTQ issues, I should not have any problems finding articles in mainstream sociology journals. I was wrong.

What I found regarding IPV research in LGBTQ communities came from LGBTQ-specific journals, such as Journal of Bisexuality, Journal of Homosexuality and Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling. Those journals are publishing extraordinary work, and I am grateful they exist. But with every article I read, I thought, “Nobody cares about us but us.” And, as I worked on a research project for a class that required the use of articles from mainstream sociological journals, this thought repeatedly went through my head: “We really are invisible.”

Deafening. Silence. The message that silence sends is that LGBTQ people are not a significant enough population to study and that we have nothing to contribute. I argue that the opposite is true. Understanding of sexual violence and IPV will be stalled until we dig deeper into their underlying sociological phenomena.

Breaking The Silence

I recognize that LGBTQ individuals are a numerical minority. I understand that most people are cisgender and heterosexual. I recognize there are challenges with sampling procedures and operationalization when studying sexual and gender minorities. I can see how people involved in research — from the researchers themselves to the funding sources to the universities in which research takes place — take the stance that resources should go to the largest majority of victims (cisgender, heterosexual women).

But the fact that IPV and sexual violence are found in lesbian and gay relationships proves that there is more to the phenomenon than cisgender, heterosexual men victimizing cisgender, heterosexual women. Which leads back the sentiment I echoed at the beginning: sexual violence is not about sexual activity or desire — it is about power.

I also recognize that masculinity is held in higher esteem in our society than femininity, which lends itself to more abuse of power. I am not saying that sexual violence has nothing to do with toxic masculinity; I am saying that toxic masculinity is not exclusive to cisgender, heterosexual men. For example, cisgender lesbians and trans men can also be misogynistic and/or abusive. Additionally, we are all socialized in rape culture, regardless of our identities. Including LGBTQ individuals in IPV and sexual violence research has the potential to shift the focus from seeing sex as a variable that is used to explain prevalence (he did it because he is a man) to one variable among many. These variables could include economic status, drug and alcohol abuse, history of abuse in childhood, or internalized biphobia, homophobia or transphobia.

Sociology is well suited to this inquiry. While criminology and feminist studies argue about gender symmetry in IPV (such as whether women abuse men as much as men abuse women), sociology could be, and should be, asking different questions. For example, how do power and dominance relate to ideas of gender, and how do those ideas manifest in all types of relationships? How do power and dominance intersect with race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, disability, and sexual orientation? How can queer theory be incorporated into sociological research, particularly to understand sexual violence?

It is time that we start finding answers to those questions. It is time to recognize that even though LGBTQ people are a numerical minority, we have distinct insights and contributions to offer. The lives of all victims of sexual violence and intimate partner violence depend on it.

Hogging: The Intersection Of Fatphobia And Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeannine A. Gailey is associate professor of sociology at Texas Christian University. She is the author of the book, The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman: Weight and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Society. Her work has also appeared in journals such as Social Psychology Quarterly, Fat Studies Journal, Deviant Behavior, Critical Criminology, Qualitative Research, and Journal of Gender Studies.

Fatphobia And “Hogging” on Campuses

In 2004, I read an article in the Cleveland Scene magazine about a practice known as “hogging.” Hogging, according to the article, is a practice wherein men — usually college-aged — attempt to pick up women they deem fat or unattractive for sport, to win a bet or for sexual pleasure. What is implied is that these women are “hogs” — and, of course, the women are unaware that they are the targets of this malicious game. I was appalled to learn that this sort of thing takes place. Unfortunately, when I started asking some of the men whom I knew whether they had ever heard of it, it was not a surprise to them.

A graduate school colleague and I began searching the literature to see whether anyone had ever written about this. We found nothing scholarly. But we were able to find quite a bit of information about “hogging” on various websites wherein college students blogged about drinking, sex, drug use and so forth.

So my colleague and I decided to conduct our own study on the practice, which was published in 2006 in Deviant Behavior. We collected everything that we could find online and designed a study to interview heterosexual college men about their sexual relationships. None of the men we interviewed admitted to engaging in the practice, but all but two knew what hogging was. In fact, we never even used the term. We simply asked them whether they had ever heard of a practice where men try to pick up women they deem fat or unattractive as part of a bet or for sex, and they responded, “Yeah, hogging.” The most disturbing finding was that they all thought it was funny.

The students we interviewed talked about their friends or fraternity brothers giving prizes to the guy who had sex with the fattest woman, in addition to multiple ways in which their friends humiliated the women with whom they had sex. These encounters almost always involved alcohol and began at parties or bars. They talked about taking large women to their car for oral sex and then kicking them out, calling them derogatory names, or having a “rodeo.” A rodeo?

One of our participants described as a rodeo to me. He said it takes place when one of the guys takes a large woman home with him to have sex or, as in Michael Flood’s research, a hotel. Prior to the couple arriving, a couple of the men’s friends hide in the room and wait for the couple to start having sex. Once the couple is having sex and it sounds as though they are “getting into it,” the friends jump out with a stopwatch and camera and time how long the man having sex with the woman can hold on to her — hence the name. Not all instances of hogging are sexual assaults, but those in which women are tricked or intoxicated most certainly are — and it seems that is how the majority of these encounters were described.

Why are women of size the targets of hogging — arguably, a form of sexual assault? The answer seems to lie in two basic assumptions, both of which encompass a larger societal phenomenon of fatphobia (the hatred of persons of size): 1) women of size are “easy” and “desperate,” and 2) women of size are viewed as deviant and even deserving of mistreatment.

In subsequent research, including my 2014 book, The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman, I interviewed women of size about their dating and sexual histories because there was so little scholarship on larger women and sex. In addition, I wanted to try to ascertain how women discuss these occurrences, if they would at all. Not surprisingly, the 74 women I interviewed had a variety of sexual experiences, ranging from one-night stands to loving, long-term sexual relationships (that is, counter to stereotypes and myths about the sex and dating lives of women of size). Unfortunately, the themes of abuse and sexual exploitation were also present in many of the women’s narratives, and most of these women had heard of hogging.

My research on hogging revealed that many of the men thought that women of size do not regularly have sex or receive much sexual attention from men and are therefore “desperate” or sexually “easy.” However, my research with women of size revealed that they have no trouble finding sexual partners. In addition, numerous women revealed that their partners were not “using” them or were with them because they thought they were “easy,” but instead were genuinely attracted to them and cared for them as whole human beings. Some women reported harassment and mistreatment and revealed stories that involved instances of sexual assault akin to hogging, but those were not the majority of their sexual encounters.

In The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman, I argue that the emphasis on the so-called obesity epidemic in the media, medical establishment and political agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, works to frame fatness as an individual failing. Persons who are fat are assumed to be lazy, irresponsible, gluttonous and unhealthy. We are told repeatedly that if someone wants to lose weight, all they need to do is decrease their caloric intake and increase their activity level. However, that logic is problematic, because it does not take into account numerous biological and social factors. As the attention on the harms of fat has increased, so has discrimination against people of size — especially women — which in turn makes them vulnerable to developing health problems.

The stigmatization of a fat body affects women differently than men. In contemporary Western societies, women are expected to be normatively attractive (thin) and are given considerably less leeway in their bodily presentation. The “obesity epidemic” has led to a conflation in health and beauty, and because fat is considered unhealthy and unattractive, fat women are under pressure to “fix” both. Women are expected to meet conventional beauty standards, and when they do not, they often experience hostility, prejudice and stigma — or sometimes sexual assault, including the practice of hogging.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to colleges and universities that receive federal funding warning that an institution’s failure to adequately confront a hostile climate of sexual harassment could represent a Title IX violation. In other words, colleges and universities have an obligation to investigate accusations. Failure to comply could mean the loss of federal funding. After the letter was sent, campuses around the country scrambled to ensure that their policies reflected the best practices outlined in the letter. According to this policy, I argue that higher education institutions have an obligation to educate student organizations and, in fact, the entire student body that the harassment (including sexual assault) of students because of their weight, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, or disability status will not be tolerated.

Moreover, to reduce the harms and discrimination experienced by women of size at the societal level, we need to eliminate the rhetoric surrounding the “obesity epidemic.” Rather than emphasizing the harms of fat or the supposed personal attributes that lead to fatness, we should investigate the social conditions that have led to an increase in people’s weights — such as lack of time and resources to incorporate physical activity, food deserts, food quality and poverty. We also have a responsibility to recognize that bodily diversity exists in the human population. Until we as a society stop reducing women to their bodies and holding unrealistic standards for body size and beauty, mistreatment and behaviors like hogging will very likely continue on college campuses and in the broader society.

Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Supporting LGBTQI Survivors Of Campus Sexual Violence & IPV, Pt. 2

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jackson Wright Shultz is an activist, educator and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. He is a current doctoral student at New England College, an administrator in TRiO Student Support Services at Everett Community College and an adjunct professor at Granite State College. Jackson is also a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

In a previous essay, I discussed sexual assault and relationship violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) campus communities — specifically, how faculty and staff members could support such students systemically. In this article, I will provide suggestions on how to interpersonally support LGBTQI students who disclose experiences of sexual or intimate partner violence to faculty and staff members.

Understand why LGBTQI students may not report. It is highly likely that LGBTQI students may avoid reporting relationship or domestic violence to the police, campus officials or medical professionals for fear of discrimination or mistreatment. A report from Lambda Legal found that 14 percent of LGBT respondents reported being verbally assaulted by police, and 2 percent reported being physically assaulted by them. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that, of those trans people who had interacted with the police, 22 percent reported harassment, 6 percent were physically assaulted and 2 percent were raped or sexually assaulted by police. Additionally, for trans people who do not have identification that accurately matches their name or appearance, filing a police report can be remarkably difficult.

On college campuses, LGBTQI communities are likely to be strongly interconnected, and survivors may not disclose relationship violence within community spaces for fear of being shunned or isolated from those communities. That can likewise be a problem within many other marginalized and activist communities. LGBTQI students of color, for example, who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized communities, can feel even more pressure to ignore violence within those communities.

Be willing to listen to and support LGBTQI survivors. LGBTQI students may have few people to whom they feel they can disclose relationship violence or sexual assault. For that reason, they may turn to a trusted staff or faculty member on campus for help. If you suspect a student is going to report sexual or relationship violence to you, inform the student whether your position is bound by Title IX or the Clery Act to report this information to your institution so that the student can make an informed decision about whether (or not) they wish to disclose to you.

Do not underestimate the positive advocacy or support role that you can play for students. While it may be outside of your comfort zone, you do not need to be a counselor in order to assist a student who discloses relationship or sexual violence to you. You can encourage a student to seek counseling or call for culturally-competent support if they are in crisis.

If a student does disclose sexual or relationship violence to you, I encourage you to follow these steps:

  • Listen.
  • Thank them for trusting you with the information.
  • Empower them to make their own decisions with regard to reporting, seeking medical attention and/or pursuing mental health care.
  • Be willing to refer the student to campus or community supports.

However, in order to refer students to campus or community services, you need to not only be aware of what support systems are available, but you must also have knowledge of the extent to which these supports are LGBTQI inclusive and competent. Support systems that are not inclusive of LGBTQI students — or worse, hostile toward LGBTQI students — can do more harm than good. Students should not be revictimized by the very services that are supposed to help them, yet many LGBTQI people face discriminatory responses and biased service.

Further, in situations of bias-motivated sexual assault (i.e., “corrective” sexual assault, or assault on the basis of one’s LGBTQI identity), emotional trauma is typically heightened. Referring a student to unsupportive or hostile campus supports can make the student feel they are under attack, further exacerbating this trauma.

You can help by educating yourself about the resources available on your campus and in the community. If you find that the existing resources are woefully inadequate for responding to the needs of LGBTQI survivors, suggest updates to policies or practices. For example, ask your student health center to implement the use of this gender-neutral anatomical diagram skin-surface assessment for their forensic sexual assault exams.

Follow up after disclosure. Trans and intersex students, in particular, will often avoid seeking legal, medical or mental health care due to the documented fear of revictimization. Trans students may also neglect to discuss past or current sexual or relationship violence with a therapist due to the fear (perceived or real) that this will delay the therapist writing a letter in support of their transition or that the therapist will question a causal relationship between their gender dysphoria and survivor status. Men students may have little or no access to sexual violence peer-support groups, and lesbian and bisexual women may feel unwelcomed in existing sexual violence peer-support spaces.

Clinical research on supporting survivors of sexual violence suggests that establishing a reconnection with the broader community is vital for the recovery process. However, due to the relatively small size of LGBTQI campus communities, it may be difficult for students to reconnect, particularly if their assailant is also a member of that community. As students all over the country have demonstrated, continuing to see one’s attacker on the campus is incredibly distressing. Due to the fact that LGBTQI students are less likely to report, their attackers are less likely to face legal or disciplinary action — and therefore more likely to remain on the campus.

The increased risk of isolation for LGBTQI survivors can have detrimental effects on their mental and emotional well-being, which has marked ramifications for their academic pursuits. When possible and appropriate, I encourage faculty and staff members to check in with the student at regular intervals. Are they seeking ongoing counseling or mental health support? Have they connected with resources? Are they experiencing isolation or harassment as a result of reporting? Are they still in an abusive relationship? (If so, you should suggest that they develop a safety plan.) Is the quality of their schoolwork suffering?

Some people may not wish to continue engaging in discussions with you after initial disclosure, but if a student trusted you enough to disclose, they probably intend their relationship with you to be ongoing. As a campus practitioner, your role as an adviser or mentor to students is powerful. Checking in with students can let them know you care about their well-being, that you wish to see them persist with their education, and that you are willing to be a continual source of support to them.

In sum, as educators and practitioners, the relationships we forge with students can have a profound impact on their college experience, persistence and overall academic success. Understanding our role in supporting the holistic well-being of our students, and taking steps to support students who are struggling with relationship and sexual violence, can help make a tough road a little easier for LGBTQI survivors.

An Intersectional Framework For Campus Sexual Violence Prevention

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nadeeka Karunaratne serves as the student development coordinator in the Cross-Cultural Center at the University of California, Irvine, and previously worked as the violence prevention coordinator in the university’s Campus Assault Resources and Education Office. She is a trauma-informed yoga instructor and is fascinated about all things at the intersection of yoga and social justice.

I used to work as the sole violence-prevention educator at a large public research university. So I understand many of the demands placed on staff in campus prevention and advocacy offices. Those demands include fulfilling workshop requests, hosting training after training, creating engaging programming, and educating an entire campus community about sexual violence.

However, I also know that the ways in which we do all of that can be isolating, marginalizing and ineffective for many student communities.

As a woman of color, I have often been in white feminist anti-sexual-violence spaces where my identities and experiences are erased and further marginalized. My journey toward an intersectional framework of prevention — one that focuses on the most marginalized communities and discusses how multiple forms of oppression intersect with sexism — began with my own experiences as a prevention educator.

I began to place my own experiences within a larger context when I heard Jessica Harris speak at the 2016 annual conference of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She connected critical race feminism to sexual violence and the experiences of women of color. CRF examines the intersections of race and gender in relationship to power and aims to deconstruct interlocking systems of domination — specifically, white supremacy and patriarchy. Harris shared her conceptual framework, explaining that women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer from violence, but also that their experiences are qualitatively different from those of white women. Indeed, research shows that women of color undergo different rates of violence and have qualitatively different experiences of trauma.

I was able to further develop my intersectional prevention education philosophy through a conceptual framework at the 2016 conference of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. There, Farah Tanis of the Black Women’s Blueprint introduced her theoretical expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model. She included “structural” and “historical” levels in her framework and discussed the importance of considering history and systemic structures of oppression in prevention. Indeed, the history of sexual violence in the United States has foundations in racism and colonialism. Rape is a tool in white colonizers’ violent tactics to eradicate and oppress indigenous communities. White people’s use of rape as an oppressive tool continued during slavery, wherein white men raped black women without consequence.

Our country’s system of higher education also shares a history of colonization, as the first colleges were established within a colonial context. Today the media and the dominant narrative in this country can portray stereotypes about women of color that are harmful and serve to legitimize their sexual abuse. In addition, the dominant narrative depicts men of color as preying on innocent white women. This can be seen from the dominant portrayal of what survivors on college campuses look like. It can even be seen in the renowned documentary The Hunting Ground, where the only named perpetrator is a black man who raped a white woman. However, even with all of this historical context and present-day narratives, discussions of racism and other forms of systemic oppression are often absent in our prevention education.

In order to address multiple forms of oppression in our education, we must move beyond supposedly inclusive prevention education, where we use gender-neutral pronouns and images that represent visible diversity, to a framework of prevention that is intersectional at its very foundation.

Below are some of the ways I have begun to do so in my own work. These strategies have been effective in engaging students in complex conversations about issues of sexual violence.

  • I open my workshops by introducing the issues of sexual assault, stalking and relationship violence through the lens of power and control. I explain that a perpetrator uses these forms of violence to exert power and control over another person. I then discuss how those forms of violence are about power and control on both an individual and a systemic level. I have used this framing of the issues as an opportunity to educate students about the historical, racist and colonialist context of sexual violence.
  • One of the core tenets of critical race feminism is the importance of storytelling, specifically counterstorytelling. Counternarratives can serve a vital role for empowerment in our prevention education, particularly when mainstream white feminism excludes those narratives. We need to think of how the current national conversation centers on white, cisgender female bodies and then critically reflect on how our programming and prevention education does the same. We must then center the most marginalized in our society within our work. One example of a counternarrative I use is the pushback against the California legislation on mandatory minimum sentences in the aftermath of Brock Turner’s conviction. I explain that, while some advocacy organizations have lobbied for mandatory minimum laws, other organizations, particularly those led by women of color, emphasize the disproportionate impact of incarceration on communities of color. Additionally, I note that the notion of justice is complicated, since the definition of “justice” (i.e., incarceration of perpetrators) does not look the same for all survivors.
  • In many workshops, I discuss trauma-informed approaches for supporting survivors, as a form of tertiary prevention. I address some of the specific barriers to seeking support, leaving abusive relationships and reporting sexual assault (administratively and criminally) that exist in different communities. In addition to discussing barriers, I also talk about the community-specific ways of healing and coping that exist. This is important for moving away from a solely deficit-based way of thinking about marginalized communities. Introducing such nuanced ways of understanding support-seeking and healing will help people to assist any survivors who may disclose to them — and in ways that do not perpetuate further violence or marginalization.
  • When talking about rape culture, we must discuss how different people’s bodies may be represented in the media, rather than talking generally about the representation of women. That includes highlighting how the hypersexualization and exotification of women of color and their bodies, and the negative portrayal of people with disabilities, to name a few examples, contribute to rape culture and sexual violence.
  • One of the most utilized forms of prevention education within higher education is bystander intervention. However, traditional bystander intervention education does not account for the experiences of some of our students on many levels. Common lessons — such as calling 911 as a strategy, asking students to visualize perpetrators and ignoring the influence of identity in intervention — range from problematic to harmful. These lessons may make bystander intervention inaccessible for students from certain communities and further perpetuate stereotypes about men of color. We must complicate how we talk about bystander intervention — for example, by highlighting the salience of identity in intervention and acknowledging specific barriers — in order for it to be an effective tool.

These are just a few ideas and strategies to help us move beyond traditional methods of prevention education. We must invest in research and practices that explore new models, particularly in the context of higher education. Discussions of identity and intersectionality are vital to prevention education. Students are not interested in hearing presentations where their lived realities are not reflected. Students are not interested in engaging in education that fails to acknowledge the complexity of identity or that does not address the wholeness of what they experience.

I will end with a quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde that further illustrates the importance of an intersectional framework of prevention education: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”