By Michelle Carroll, EROC Associate Director of External Programming
Movements are effective only when we intentionally question ourselves and our work. And so we must consistently ask ourselves—how do we reclaim aspects of the college sexual assault movement to make our movement better for students and activists? As the Associate Director of External Programming at End Rape On Campus (EROC), I spend a lot of my time thinking about how students experience prevention education at schools. I have the pleasure of working with students and administrators on developing anti-violence programming tailored to their community’s needs and experiences. In doing this work, I’ve come to see that intentional anti-sexual violence programming, specifically prevention programming, is essential to change the culture at a school or university. But, many school communities are failing to maximize the impact of their messaging because students are not a central part of the development and dissemination of the prevention messaging.
I believe that there are three main reasons prevention programming in our schools is failing to result in meaningful culture change.
First, sexual violence prevention education at our schools must reflect the reality of students’ lives.
Second, all sexual violence prevention education must be actively anti-racist.
And finally, our prevention education must dismantle heteronormativity.
Prevention Education Must Reflect the Reality of Students’ Lives
All college students step foot onto campus having already led full lives. For some students, this can also include early experiences with victimization, perpetration, substance abuse, and mental health issues. University students also arrive with a set of biases, unexamined privileges, and stereotypes that govern how they engage with their new community members. It is disingenuous of prevention educators and administrators to ignore these realities and instead provide students with sexual violence prevention education that is in conflict with their lived experiences.
In doing so, we ignore the very real data that tells us the amount of unresolved trauma that students bring with them to their new educational communities:
One in 14 women, nearly 18.5 million women, reported an experience of rape before they turned 18. (1)
Sexual violence affects adolescent girls. 1 in 5 girls aged 14 to 18 has been kissed or touched without consent, including 24% of Latina girls, 23% of Native girls, and 22% of Black girls. (2) Additionally, 13% of girls in AAPI communities experience nonconsensual sexual contact. (3)
Youth with disabilities are largely excluded from sex education and health education. Internationally, girls with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience gender-based violence than their peers without a disability. (4) In the United States, youth with mental health disabilities are nearly five times as likely to experience sexual victimization. (5)
16% of men reported sexual victimization by the age of 18. (6)
59.6% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer secondary students have been sexually harassed at school and are more likely to experience sexual harassment than non-LGBTQ students. (7)
One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives. (8)
78% of transgender or gender non-conforming youth are sexually harassed during grades K-12.
Immigrant girls and young women are almost twice as likely as their non-immigrant peers to have experienced incidents of sexual assault. (9)
When I talk to current students or recent college grads about the prevention education that they received in college, I generally am met with blank looks. Most students that I engage with, even students who self-identify as activists in the college anti-violence movement, can barely recall the plethora of information that was thrown at them during those first few days on campus. This lack of knowledge is no fault of the individual student. Universities must disseminate information about the school’s policies, Title IX office, and support services during orientation, but also throughout the first few weeks of school. They must also consider who else can provide students with this information in different formats and spaces. We must meet students where they are.
Sexual Violence Prevention Education Must Be Anti-Racist
Like sexual violence, racism can be examined through the lens of power and control. Who has the power to silence a person or group of people? Who has the power to dominate a person or group of people? If we divorce our prevention conversations from white supremacy then we are continuing to replicate power dynamics that value the experiences of white people over those of people of color. In the college anti-sexual violence movement, this can look like prioritizing the stories of survivors who fit a strict narrative of white, cisgender, straight women being victimized by fraternity brothers. We know that the aforementioned narrative fails to accurately capture the power dynamics at our schools and the narrative conveys to students whose stories do not fit that their experience doesn’t matter.
Additionally, if our programming does not actively challenge white supremacy then we are not actually creating culture change. For example, most institutions mandate that certain students at their school complete bystander intervention training. Bystander intervention is a set of skills that empower individuals to assess a potentially violent situation and intervene with the goal of preventing violence. However, many formal programs train folks to immediately call the police when they think they are witnessing a violent incident. Anyone who has watched the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement will know that the introduction of law enforcement could result in additional violence. But traditional bystander intervention programming does not allow space for conversations of police violence or unexamined racial bias. Instead, we are providing another generation of people with information that may make our communities more dangerous.
Queering the Curriculum
The kids are all queer—well at least most of them are! In 2016, a national study found that 52 percent of 13-20 year olds identify their sexuality as somewhere on the fluid or bisexual spectrum. Additionally, over a third of respondents agreed that gender does not define a person. However, despite the cultural changes that catapulted queer culture in the mainstream, our schools’ anti-sexual violence education has not caught up.
Our sexual violence prevention programming must expand to include information that will be relevant to queer students. How does coercion and control look differently in a non-monogamous relationship or even in the kink community? Additionally, any programming provided to administrators, professors, and law enforcement must also move away from examining sexual and domestic violence through a heteronormative and monogamous lens. It is no longer appropriate for university prevention educators to misuse terms and acronyms that define the LGBTQIA+ community. Students should not be expected to educate their university administration on their life and relationships.
Empower Students to Lead!
As the primary recipients of any prevention programming or culture change education, students must be given meaningful roles in the development, execution, and review of any community’s sexual violence prevention programming. Administrators should see the development of a prevention education curriculum as an opportunity to build trust with students. In the last decade, we’ve seen a number of institutions lose prestige for mishandling sexual violence. These news stories have affected how students perceive their institution or school. But if an administration approaches this issue with transparency and intentionally makes space for students to inform complex prevention curricula, then students are meaningful partners in changing the community.
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. (2017). In National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf
National Women’s Law Center, Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout for: Girls Who Have Suffered Harassment and Sexual Violence 1 (Apr. 2017), available at https://nwlc.org/resources/stopping-school-pushout-for-girls-who-have-suffered-harassment-and-sexual-violence
Fact Sheet: Sexual Violence in Asian Pacific Islander Communities, Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, Apr. 2018.
Young Persons with Disabilities: Global Study on Ending Gender-based Violence and Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. (July 2018). United Nations Populations Fund
Lund, Emily M., and Vaughn-Jensen, J. (2012). “Victimisation of Children with Disabilities.” The Lancet, Volume 380 (Issue 9845), 867-869.
Dube, S., Anda, R., & Whitfield, C. (n.d.). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. (United States of America, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).
Greytak, E.A., Kosciw, J.G., Villenas, C. & Giga, N.M. (2016). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, A Survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN.
FORGE, 2005, Sexual Violence in the Transgender Community Survey, unpublished data; G. Kenagy, 2005, "The Health and Social Service Needs of Transgender People in Philadelphia," International Journal of Transgenderism 8(2/3):49–56; G. Kenagy and W. Bostwick, 2005, "Health and Social Service Needs of Transgendered People in Chicago," International Journal of Transgenderism 8(2/3):57–66.
Jessica Mindlin, Leslye Orloff, Sameera Pohiraju et al., Empowering Survivors: Legal Rights of Immigrant Victims of Sexual Assault. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, July 2013.