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Advice on what to do if you are engaged in sexual violence activism

3rd August 2018

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By Dr. Chris Linder 

Thanks to the work of committed student activists, sexual violence on college and university campuses has received increased attention from policymakers, researchers, and popular media in recent years.  As we look toward starting a new academic year that will surely require continued attention to sexual violence, I offer three ideas for campus activists to consider.

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1. ALWAYS, ALWAYS address violence from an intersectional, power-conscious perspective. 

Although sexual violence has deep roots in colonization, slavery, and other racialized violence, we frequently approach sexual violence as solely a “gender” or “women’s issue.”  Failing to account for the ways sexual violence is rooted in power and dominance, which is connected to racism and colonization, results in less than effective strategies for addressing sexual violence at its roots.  Rates of sexual violence on college campuses have not budged in the last 60 years, and perpetrators target people with minoritized identities at even higher rates than their cisgender, heterosexual, white women peers.  To more effectively address sexual violence at its roots, we must consider the ways sexual violence is connected to state violence directed minoritized people and the relationship between racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression and sexual violence. I recommend examining the history of sexual violence in your context and developing reading discussion groups to further explore and understand your context.  For example, I have students in my sexual violence courses read one of the following texts and present the high points of it to the rest of the class:

Understanding our history is the first step in developing more intersectional, power-conscious approaches to addressing sexual violence.

2. Responding to and preventing sexual violence are two different things. 

Unfortunately, the high rates of sexual violence require us to spend an inordinate amount of energy responding to sexual violence after it happens, rather than preventing it from happening in the first place.  In fact, most sexual violence activists spend their time and energy urging campus administrators to do better when it comes to responding to sexual violence.  Although appropriate responses may result in lower rates of violence, this has not yet happened. Because our criminal justice systems function from a retributive, rather than rehabilitation, perspective, an increase in the number of people incarcerated for sexual violence has not reduced rates of sexual violence.  In addition to the lack of rehabilitation efforts, increased criminalization of sexual violence does not result in lower rates of violence because the criminal justice system is racist, classist, and homophobic.  Men of color and poor men are way more likely to go to jail for sexual violence than middle-class, white men.  Given the demographics of college campuses, we know that white, middle-class men commit most of the sexual violence on college campuses.

So, let’s shift our focus and energy away from the broken and harmful criminal justice system (and its very close cousin: our ineffective campus adjudication systems) and start focusing on actual prevention of sexual violence.

True prevention of sexual violence requires intervention with perpetrators and potential perpetrators.  Many campus sexual violence “prevention” programs focus on teaching potential victims how not to get assaulted, rather than teaching perpetrators to stop raping.  How can we start to intervene with and address perpetrators?  One strategy I recommend is to begin to look into the work of transformative justice.  Engaging entire communities to hold perpetrators accountable and require them to do and be better may just result in a reduction of violence.  In addition to focusing on perpetrators who have committed violence, transformative justice requires us to address perpetration before it happens by addressing issues of injustice throughout our communities. 

3. Finally, take care of yourselves and each other in this work.  

People engaged in addressing sexual violence spend a lot of time thinking about issues of violence.  Most of us are also survivors of violence.  The issues we’re addressing feel beyond urgent, so most of us do not take the time we need to rest, recuperate, and heal from our own experiences with violence. However, we must take the time to heal and support each other in our healing processes, no matter what those look like.  None of us can do this work by ourselves and we must figure out ways to rely on each other and to rest.  Although self-care may feel like a privilege, as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

Dr. Chris Linder is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy at the University of Utah, USA.  Using a power-conscious, historical lens, she studies campus sexual violence and student activism.  She is the author of Sexual Violence on Campus: Power-Conscious Approaches to Awareness, Prevention, and Response (Emerald Press) and co-editor of Intersections of Identity and Sexual Violence: Centering Minoritized Students’ Experiences (Stylus Press). 

Follow her on Twitter @proflinder.

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