In the US, rates of sexual violence directed at women on college campuses have remained steadily high since the 1950s. The rates hover around one in four or one in five women who will experience sexual violence in her college career. Although some people argue that women may be identifying their assaults more frequently now because they are more knowledgeable or that statistics are inflated because of wording on surveys, one thing is clear: we have a problem. In fact, emerging research indicates that perpetrators target bisexual and gay men, transgender people, bisexual women, women of colour, and people with disabilities at even higher rates than their cisgender, heterosexual, white, non-disabled peers.
Thankfully, over the past several years, campus activists and their supporters have drawn increased attention to the problem of sexual violence on college and university campuses in the US, Canada, and the UK. The increase in attention to campus sexual violence provides an important opportunity for us to examine strategies for more effectively addressing violence.
This increase in attention has primarily focused on responding to sexual violence after it happens, rather than developing more effective strategies for preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place. Fueled by institutional betrayal, or the feeling that their institutions did not effectively protect them, student activists have heavily focused on pushing universities to better respond to violence after it happens. Although holding perpetrators accountable is one strategy for preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place, some research indicates that accountability for other perpetrators is not actually a deterrent for perpetrators of sexual assault. Further, many campus administrators have conflated response with prevention, spending all of their resources for campus sexual violence on compliance with national policies related to running “fair” adjudication processes.
In addition to policy being a limited strategy for preventing sexual violence, most policy related to sexual violence also fails to account for power in the dynamics of sexual violence. Policy is frequently presented as power-neutral, yet in reality when policy does not take into account power, it favours people with dominant identities and experiences. Power-neutral policies and practices frequently operate from an ahistorical place, designed to address symptoms of problems, rather than the root.
I advocate that college and university educators, administrators, and activists operate from a power-conscious framework and consider the relationship between awareness, response, and prevention as strategies to more effectively address sexual violence. A power-conscious framework requires educators and activists to consider the role of formal and informal power as it relates to sexual violence. Further, power-consciousness requires attention to social identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) as mediators and brokers of power. A power-conscious framework situates people’s experiences in interlocking systems of oppression – racism, sexism, classism – to illustrate the ways sexual violence impacts different people differently, depending on their social location.
Further, I argue that educators, administrators, and activist should consider strategies focused on awareness, response, and prevention of sexual violence. Although these strategies certainly overlap, I believe it is important to consider the differences between the three to ensure that we are using the synergy of these three perspectives to effectively eradicate campus sexual violence.
Awareness refers to the ways in which scholars, educators, and activists attempt to bring the problem of sexual violence into the consciousness of administrators and students. Response refers to the ways institutional agents (i.e., faculty, staff, and administrators) address sexual violence after it happens. Finally, prevention refers to the strategies activists and educators employ to address sexual violence before it happens. True prevention would mean intervention with perpetrators and potential perpetrators to address their oppressive behaviours before they act on them, yet most campuses do not spend resources in this manner.
Moving forward, I hope that we (campus leaders) can find the balance between awareness, response, and prevention strategies to address sexual violence on our campuses. Sexual violence is not inevitable – we do not have to spend all of our resources responding to it after it happens; in fact, we can and should spend some of our resources to intervene with potential perpetrators to stop sexual violence before it happens!
Dr. Chris Linder is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy at the University of Utah, USA. Read more on this topic in her book Sexual Violence on Campus: Power-Conscious Approaches to Awareness, Prevention, and Response here.