Sexual Violence is an Equity Issue

Scholar-activist Dr Chris Linder is Assistant Professor of College Student Affairs Administration at the University of Georgia. She has vast experience as a student affairs educator, and her recent book Sexual Violence on Campus: Power-Conscious Approaches to Awareness, Prevention, and Response was published by Emerald in May 2018. In this blog, she offers strategies for administrators and educators to help address sexual violence more effectively.

To more effectively address sexual violence, educators and administrators must consider sexual violence an equity issue rooted in issues of power, oppression, and privilege, rather than solely seeing it as a public health issue.  The historical roots of sexual violence as a tool of domination, colonization, and economic control illuminate the ways sexual violence continues to thrive on college campuses today.  By referring to campus sexual violence as a “national epidemic,” researchers, journalists, and activists disassociate campus sexual violence from larger systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Epidemic implies a “short-term, isolated problem”(Deer, 2015, p. ix) and does not take into account how sexual violence has remained a constant form of power and control throughout history.

Although helping people – students, parents, faculty, staff, and policymakers, among others – understand the relationship between power and sexual violence is complicated, failing to do so is unethical.  Rates of sexual violence on college campuses have not changed in over 60 years, meaning that current practices are not effective.  Further, given that perpetrators of sexual violence target those in minoritized communities at higher rates than their dominant group peers, considering sexual violence a manifestation of power, dominance, and oppression may not be so difficult to understand and present.

Although every campus has unique dynamics requiring specific interventions on that campus, here I offer three specific strategies for administrators who want to more effectively address sexual violence from a power-conscious lens:

  1. Design interventions to more effectively intervene with perpetrators and potential perpetrators. As college and university administrators and educators, we have a responsibility to more effectively intervene and stop perpetrators from causing harm, rather than just removing them from our campuses and pushing them into another community to continue causing harm.  Although our knowledge on campus perpetrators is limited, some evidence points to the reality that many campus perpetrators do not understand their problematic behavior as an act of power and control.  Designing workshops, programs, and one-on-one interventions to engage perpetrators and potential perpetrators around their harmful behaviors requires us to move away from the bad guy vs. good guy mentality and consider that many people have been socialized to believe that they are entitled to take what they want from other people through coercion, violence, and manipulation.  Effective interventions address this behavior and mentality and stop it from continuing, rather than just removing or ousting this person from a community.
  2. Provide accurate information to students and parents about the dynamics of sexual violence on campus. Most students have been socialized to think of sexual violence as someone jumping out of the bushes and attacking an unsuspecting woman walking alone at night.  The vast majority of sexual violence on college campuses happens between two people who know each other and who engage in some consensual romantic behaviors.  All the mace, self-defense courses, and tasers in the world likely would not do much to eradicate this kind of violence.  Most people would not use self-defense tactics when engaged with people they have a relationship with.  Further, misperceptions of the dynamics of sexual violence may contribute to increased risk of violence because we teach students to be “afraid” or “on guard” with strangers, but not with people they know or consider friends or acquaintances, making it easier for perpetrators to cause harm to people who have not considered that violence may be perpetrated by someone they know.
  3. Design identity-specific educational programs. Perpetrators target people with minoritized identities at higher rates than their dominant group peers.  For example, bisexual women, gay men, women of color, students with disabilities, and trans and gender non-conforming people all experience higher rates of sexual violence than their white, cisgender, heterosexual non-disabled peers. Despite this reality, most education and awareness programs fail to account for the unique dynamics of violence outside of a heterosexual, cisgender man and woman who have consumed alcohol.  When educational programs do attempt to account for additional identities in their programs, they often just change the visible identities of the people involved in the educational scenario, but leave the dynamics the same.  Although representation matters, so does accuracy – the dynamics of sexual violence and the role of power look different among different groups of people and should be accounted for in educational programs.

Usually, when I offer suggestions like these, one of the first questions I get is, “Do you know of campuses who are doing this?” or “Who is doing this already?” Although there likely are people across the country attempting to implement programs like these, the reality is most of these strategies have not been deemed “best practices” by any organizations yet.  I struggle with the framework of the question of “who is doing this” for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that we seem to be lacking institutional courage – the willingness to be the first ones to try something that hasn’t been tried before.

To more effectively address sexual violence, educators and administrators must embrace their courage: courage to speak truth to power, to try new and innovative approaches, to be bold and different, to take risks, and to embrace the complexity and nuance that challenging power has always required.  There are people working on most of our campuses who have lots of ideas about how to more effectively intervene with perpetrators, how to design accurate, identity-specific educational programs, and do lots of critical, radical work to more effectively address sexual violence.  Student activists, especially those with minoritized identities; educators working in identity-based offices; and ethnic studies and women’s studies faculty who study and live dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression every day know how to address oppression.  We must listen.   We must consider a new paradigm.  Who are the equity experts in your community and how will you engage, support, and listen to them when it comes to addressing sexual violence?

Citations

Deer, S. (2015). The beginning and the end of rape: Confronting sexual violence in Native America.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Want to find out more? Listen to our podcast, in which Chris Linder talks with academics and practitioners Susan Marine, Niah Grimes and Marvette Lacy about the importance addressing sexual violence.  

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