The Debrief: Applying Research to Practice - Sexual Assault Prevention

One of my favorite parts of my dissertation defense was when my committee asked me for recommendations—they directed me to get more and more specific and talk about what the institution could actually do and what actions they could actually take, based on the findings of my research, to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault. My recommendations for that specific institution can be found in my final dissertation draft, but here I’m sharing my general thoughts that can apply to other colleges and universities. Of course I can’t really get super specific in one blog post, but I’d like to outline what kind of work might be done at different levels on different college campuses.

I want administrators to commit to their own re-education. There are so many rape myths in our culture, and we all hold so many biases and false beliefs about sex, sexuality and sexual violence. That’s the default in many ways, unless we really work at it. There are trained, certified professionals who can help administrators, as complicated individuals and as institutional leaders, to reflect on their own beliefs and to gain perspectives that will help them be more effective and compassionate leaders and humans. By strengthening their own knowledge and skills with regard to sexuality, administrators would be in a better position to communicate complicated messages about the values of the institution and the ways in which the community may be falling short on embracing and enacting those values. In tandem with fulfilling Title IX obligations, administrators may also want to consider restorative justice models that emphasize community accountability, particularly for cases that cannot or will not be addressed under Title IX for a variety of reasons. Community-building involves taking seriously individual boundaries and experiences of boundary violation.

Faculty and staff
Faculty and staff can also contribute to prevention efforts by educating themselves. Then they would be better positioned to address sexuality, sexual violence and related issues in their classes. I don’t want ill-equipped professors to bring up these conversations in a way that reinforces already false or problematic assumptions and risks triggering or re-traumatizing students. For faculty who do want to have open discussions in their classrooms, or for staff who have other opportunities to plan events, here are some options:

  • Break it down: Talk directly about intersecting systems of oppression and rape culture and their impact on the campus community (maybe not in those terms). Meet students where they’re at and help them get a little (or a lot) more critical.
  • Build it up: What are the positive possibilities for how we can live our lives, love each other and pursue pleasure? What could that look like, on this campus, in this community, for these people? Bring in specific stories or models to discuss, or help students identify their own shared values and expectations.
  • Act it out: Sometimes I feel like role plays are super over-used in sex ed. But sometimes for building interpersonal skills it helps to play around with specific language and to use specific situations as a jumping-off point for reflection and discussion. Realistic role plays can be meaningful and helpful. Even unrealistic role plays, as long as they are recognized as such, can also be an opportunity to find some of the fun in direct communication.

Student leaders are doing all kinds of amazing activism and agitation in all kinds of spaces. I don’t need to give them any more recommendations or ideas. I also think a lot of the burden of doing this work needs to be shifted from the students to the faculty, staff and administrators, who are professionally and legally responsible for the well-being of these young people as they pursue an education. That said, I think administrators would do well to invest funding and other institutional energies to supporting student activism and peer education. Student leaders can get different conversations going about sex—speak-outs and blogs sharing stories of sexual violence, and other opportunities for students to hear from each other about times when sex feels really confusing, or about times when communication works really well and sex feels awesome. Administrators should make it easy (with ample funding and enthusiastic support) for students involved in sex-related activism to collaborate with other student groups, like clubs or teams or other sub-cultural spaces in order to spread the resources and extend the structured opportunities for talking and listening across campus.

Why haven’t I said “consent” yet?
I’ve written this post on sexual violence prevention without even mentioning consent. That’s weird. I think everyone—administrators, faculty and staff, students, academics, educators, activists, bloggers—can contribute to these efforts by digging deeper into the idea of consent. What does it mean? What is the work that we need the concept of consent to do for us? What is the work that we need to do, as individuals, in our communities, and as cultural and political leaders, around the concept of consent? The more I research human sexuality, the more complicated it seems.

My dissertation is not yet publicly available, but follow my blog or Twitter feed for updates in the near future. I’m happy to talk more about my research, and I plan to continue this work from New York City once I get there in April!

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