I’ve been a professor for over 20 years and have spent the bulk of this time working to end violence against women. I also spent many years working as a counselor with violent men and worked with survivors of violence. I teach about intimacy and violence. Every. Single. Semester. Consequently, I am also faced with many students—too many—disclosing about sexual violence and trauma. This is what I know for sure about sexual violence on campus:
Higher education is an important pathway to success in the public realm. Enduring sexual assault and the aftermath of trauma significantly derails young women and sabotages their success. Young men who are sexually violating on campus are also violating and undermining women’s chances for independence and success, academically, professionally and personally. The research consistently shows that young college-aged women are most at risk during their first semester on campus. This fact alone helps to reveal the tremendous sabotage occurring here, right as someone is trying to establish a sense of a new home.
In fact, sexual assault in residence halls needs to be reconceptualized as domestic violence since the dorm and the new college environment are, indeed, home. Last fall, I had a lovely student who confided with me in my office that she had gone to a party with a woman friend who was flirting with a man there via an app but not actually talking with him; they all met up later and went back to the dorm, and the friend and the young man fooled around but she did not want sex and asked him to sleep on the couch in the common area of the suite. Instead, this young man wound up barging in my student’s bedroom and raped her. It is no wonder why she struggled that semester and left campus. It is also why professors’ office hours can get a little complicated.
Amputated from empathy, bloated with perceptions of being disenfranchised from a dominant sense of masculinity, and loaded up on virulent misogyny, men who commit these acts showcase everything that is broken in our society.
Sexual abuse takes on a variety of forms: rape, sexual assault, coercion, pressure, threats, and sexual bargaining for things in return. One person is treated as being less valuable than the other; that person’s needs, desires, and interests are also subordinated to the other. Abuse involves power and control. It is about forcing someone to do something against his/her will as well as preventing someone from doing what s/he wants to do. Abuse is damaging on various levels—to the body, the psyche, the heart, the spirit, to one’s moral core, etc. For survivors, this is not a death sentence but it is certainly debilitating until treatment is sought.
Violence exerts social control meaning that even those who have never been victims of violence know to fear it. This is most certainly the case with rape and sexual assault and particularly on college campuses where this topic is truly everywhere and nowhere all at once.
I look at this problem not just as a researcher and writer but also as a survivor of an attempted sexual assault. During the first semester of my first year at college, I was studying in the basement of my dorm and a young man named Jason suggested that we head upstairs to his room to make coffee so we could stay up later to study. When we got to his room, Jason did not have coffee on his mind. Instead, he threw me on the bottom bunk and proceeded to take my shirt off and had my bra almost undone. His moves were not romantic; they were forceful, hostile and aggressive. I was cornered and pressed down. With all the strength I could muster in my legs, I kicked him off of me and ran out of his room and down seven flights of stairs with only my pants on and a light blue bra half on and half off.
I never reported this to anyone or spoke of it again until I began to teach about intimacy and violence. It was in the classroom that I found myself more willing to be open about my own survivorship and carefully disclosed this story to my students, sharing in their newfound outrage and in the courage to break the silence.
The thing is, during that evening and in its aftermath, the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I attended college never became a dangerous place for me. The entitled attitudes of predatory young men like this are what’s dangerous. And the society that tolerates and supports misogynist attitudes and behaviors is what still feels most dangerous to me. Actually, it is the University of Wisconsin-Madison itself that I learned to feel more safe, empowered and free. It was there that I became me. It was a formative, lush time in my life, where I was developing intellectually, emotionally, socially, sexually, creatively, politically, and spiritually. Most specifically, it is where I became a sociologist committed to understanding social inequalities and structural oppression, where I learned concepts and terms to name grossly unequal social arrangements and conditions, like those related to violence against women. It was in classrooms focused on gender, that what began as a seemingly sweet and innocent night—that quickly turned confusing, lonely, and scary—began to make sense and have meaning.
Supporting the very academic programs and centers that are all too often contested, underfunded or that sometimes sadly get eliminated in this country—like Gender Studies and Gender Centers—would go a long way toward enhancing the health, emotional safety and well-being of campuses across the country. And administrators need to substantively back faculty who do this work— which is arguably some of the hardest emotional labor on campus.
Over the years, thousands of my students, upon learning about relationship violence, have told me that this should be part of the general education requirements on campus, that it is in my classroom that they came to re-think complicated family dynamics, re-evaluated their past and current intimate relationships and began to imagine a future free of violence. The topic of violence against women engages our heads and our hearts, something that is at the core of a valuable and practical liberal arts education.
We must work toward the following goals: evidence-based intervention, emphasis on first year programming since research shows that first year female students are at highest risk for violence, bystander work, ally work, creating consciousness so that students can appreciate how intersectionality of oppression—sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, and cruelty toward people with disabilities— is linked to forms of violence. We must cultivate a campus culture in which it is possible to end rape and imagine freedom, where we can have the hard conversations, where faculty and students can collaborate to consider creative pathways toward peace and healing, both essential elements for a meaningful life that is not overrun by despair.