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Listening to Survivors of Sexual Violence

Source: Trauma and Dissociation

Most of you reading this blog post know someone who has been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, stalked, and/or physically harmed by an intimate partner — unfortunately, it might even be yourself. But, I would venture to guess that most of you who know a survivor of sexual violence do not actually know the survivor status of these partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, students, neighbors, etc.

In large part, this potential ignorance is the result of rape culture: the silencing of survivors; the blaming of victims for the violence perpetuated against them; the downplaying of predators’ actions; the willful ignorance regarding the pervasiveness of sexual violence and how society actually facilitates and celebrates it. When victims are not believed, are blamed, are shamed, and never see justice when they report the violence that they have experienced, it is perhaps a matter of protecting oneself from further harm and violence to choose silence.

But, your potential ignorance regarding who around you has survived sexual violence may also be your own doing. Your political leanings say a lot about you, no matter how central they are to your life. Those who are presumed to or actually believe that women do not have a choice over whether to terminate an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, that women should remain chaste until marriage, that a woman’s place is in the home, that a rapist with no political experience beat a seasoned woman in an election for the most important political office in the nation — these are people least likely to be sought out to disclose that one has been sexually assaulted. People who make rape jokes, excuse rapists’ behaviors, blame rape victims, or narrowly view rape as a private matter between a victim and a perpetrator are perhaps least likely to be entrusted with a friend’s story of being raped when she was a college freshman.

From my experience over the past few years, I would surmise that survivors of sexual violence disclose their experiences of violence with those who have earned their trust. But, I do not just mean that you can keep a secret or will not pass judgment. I mean that you have proven yourself to be a trustworthy ally to or — better yet — an advocate for survivors.

The more that I have committed to advocating for survivors, to stopping sexual violence, and to eliminating rape culture, the more relatives, friends, colleagues, students, and even strangers who are survivors have shared their stories with me. The more I speak out about sexual violence in the classroom, in my public writing, at conferences, and in private conversations, the more I have received the gift of survivors’ trust. For example, more than a dozen colleagues (most who were previously strangers to me) disclosed that they had been assaulted or harassed at past sociology conferences after I wrote a blog post about sexual violence at last year’s American Sociological Association meeting. It feels as though I created some sort of safe space around me by even naming sexual violence, and a handful of survivors have taken me up on my offer to listen to them, to believe them, to fight with them.

I would like to share a few tips for supporting survivors of sexual violence, namely earning their trust as a genuine advocate (or ally, if you prefer). These come from my experience, at best described as trial-and-error — by no means an expert opinion.

Cherish disclosure as a rare gift. Recognize how hard it is for a survivor of sexual violence to share their experiences with another person. Recognize the high risk of them not being believed, being blamed, being dismissed — of being revictimized just by telling their story. Survivors have every reason to keep you in the dark, so you should appreciate and affirm their willingness to allow you into this aspect of their lives.

…but, do not only think of them as a victim. If a survivor has asked you to do something specific to support them, do it if you can. Otherwise, I would discourage you from altering your behavior toward them or in their presence. You do not need to constantly ask them about being assaulted or harassed. You also should not avoid the topic unless they have asked you to. Survivors are so much more than victims of past sexual violence. If anything, they need you to treat them as normal human beings, as this would help counter the slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and hostility they experience from others.

Do not share their stories with others without permission. You should assume, unless otherwise stated, that you — and you alone — were given this gift of disclosure. You should not reveal their stories to other people, even in the abstract or with identifying details left out (just to be safe). Of course, if you are legally obligated to report disclosed sexual violence — for example, because of Title IX policies in higher education — you should immediately inform a survivor that you will have to report the incidence. Let them know as soon as you suspect that they are about to disclose to you; do not wait until after they have done so. Yet, do so in a way that is still inviting, rather than posed as a warning, as this may prevent them from disclosing to you (or anyone else who may be required to report sexual violence).

Emphasize that you believe them, and ask how you can support them. I have learned from experience that survivors do not disclose to others for any reason other than sharing their stories, having their voices heard, and being believed — perhaps to request others’ support or assistance, though not necessarily. Counter to the myths that they are seeking attention (perhaps even to the extent of fabricating their stories), it is perhaps helpful to share the burden of violence with others. And, maybe it is just to let you know, as it may be relevant to the conversation at hand or an important aspect of their lives. If and when a survivor opens up to you, let them know that you believe them, thank them for opening up to you, and ask what, if anything, you can do to support them.

Be an advocate at all times. Even if survivors in your life have not disclosed to you, you should consistently be an advocate for all survivors of sexual violence. I have learned that even in absence of personal experience or expertise on the subject, you have power in your ability to ask questions. It could be as simple as “what about the issue of sexual violence?” or “how are we supporting rape survivors?”  In doing so, you are putting the issue on the table and making space for survivors to speak up. Survivors may never open up to you no matter your advocacy, but that is okay as the goal is to support them, not to rack up stories shared with you. In general, look into bystander intervention advocacy to learn about ways that you can challenge sexual violence and rape culture and support victims at all times.

I am learning as I go, so I do not present these as the best ways to support survivors, or even an exhaustive list. So, I invite you to share other tips in the comments section below. I would especially like to hear from survivors (who are willing to open up) about which behaviors of potential allies and advocates has been most effective in supporting them.

Academic Departments Normalize Sexual Violence By Ignoring It

Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). I was pressured by IHE to use a pseudonym (I chose “Donovan A. Steinberg”) to minimize the likelihood of being sued. I am a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Richmond.

My Professor, the Sexual Predator

Most of us have heard stories of professors who have sexually harassed or assaulted their colleagues or students. The stories covered in the news often involve senior heterosexual men professors who have finally been reprimanded, suspended or fired after years of perpetrating sexual violence — and after several victims have come forward about the violence they have experienced. It seems that the problem has to accumulate a great deal before perpetrators are punished and the rest of the world learns of it.

But these men professors are few and far between. There are countless faculty members who have not harassed or raped enough colleagues and/or students to be punished by the university or to warrant media attention. That is not to suggest that their behavior is not as bad or that their actions have been less damaging to their victims. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and rape is rape. The problem is that most of these perpetrators get away with their crimes, even in the rare instances when victims report it or speak publicly about it. Even in the face of clear evidence of sexual violence, it seems that academe tends to defend predators, often because of their status and intellectual reputation, especially relative to their (usually lower-status) victims.

I have enough sense that unpunished sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members is so rampant that I would venture to guess that we all know that guy — that one professor who is known to be at least a little inappropriate with his students and/or junior colleagues. He is that person women grad students and junior faculty are warned to avoid: “He’s really smart, but …” We all know it, but somehow he remains on the faculty. Other people may even defend him: “Oh, that’s just [rapist’s name] being [rapist’s name].” “Boys will be boys.” “Locker room talk.” Sexual violence is so normalized in our society, why should academe be any better about punishing perpetrators and protecting victims?

I give all of this context to justify talking about that guy in my graduate program. I chose not to mention him by name because the details of the sexual violence that he has perpetrated may distract from my larger point: that he is but one of many faculty members who are essentially given a free pass to harass and assault those around them in the department. I will call him “Uncle Rapey” for the sake of this essay.

I actually chose my graduate program because of the faculty members who specialized in my area, including Uncle Rapey. When I visited the program as a prospective graduate student, I had meetings with faculty members to learn more about the program. At the close of each meeting, that professor would walk me to the next faculty member’s office. One professor escorted me to meet with Uncle Rapey after she and I met. She teased him about being good. He retorted that he and I collectively would have at least three legs on the ground at all times. She giggled. My memory perhaps incorrectly recalls her also saying, “Oh, [Rapey].” How cool, I thought, that these professors joked about sex so openly. How naïve I was.

A few months into my first year, I attended a conference, where I reconnected with my undergrad mentor. As we parted, her face turned cold and her tone became serious. She told me, “Stay away from [Uncle Rapey] — promise me you’ll stay away from [Uncle Rapey].” She did not explain further. But I knew that they had worked together in the past, so I assumed she had good reason to warn me about him.

At this point, however, it was too late. I was well into my first (and last) course with him. Every week, I had already been subjected to his sexual jokes — once teasing me and a fellow graduate student about engaging in fisting. At the course’s end, he approached me and another grad student to request that we pose nude for him for his amateur photography (pornography?) work. I declined. And that was certainly the last time I worked with him in any professional capacity, and thereafter tried my best to avoid him. It is difficult, though, when the department keeps faculty like Uncle Rapey involved in departmental affairs. I still remember the time he greeted his genitals as he visited another class I was enrolled in.

But, I got off easy — privileged, to be more accurate. Another student in the department revealed to me the time that Uncle Rapey pushed her against the wall and forced his hand into her vagina after complimenting her on her skirt. She eventually disappeared from the program, probably never finishing her Ph.D. And I know of other women grad students whom he has harassed or assaulted, and some of them never finished their graduate training. Recently, I have heard that a new crop of graduate students is outraged with the department as he remains on faculty, unpunished, given a free pass to assault and harass students. These are only the stories of which I have heard. I can only imagine countless other victims have suffered in silence.

I would argue that when one institution fails to seek justice, it opens the doors for injustice in other institutions. Since my department failed to punish Uncle Rapey, there was little to stop him from perpetuating violence in other academic contexts. He continues to be recognized as a leader in our field, even being honored as awards are named for him.

I have chosen to speak up here because there are many Uncle Rapeys in academe. We all know one or maybe more than one. Departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students. In some ways, they actually facilitate sexual violence — as an expression of power — by maintaining hierarchies, wherein senior faculty wield power over junior faculty, grad students, undergraduate students and staff. These professional hierarchies are further compounded by society’s hierarchies — classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and ageism.

In the meantime, we have to keep calling out the Uncle Rapeys of academe. Departments and universities must actually put their sexual harassment policies into practice. Victims should be able to easily and confidentially report sexual harassment and assault. And punishments for sexual violence should be blind to the perpetrator’s professional status, as that status may be the very vehicle through which they are allowed to prey on others.

On Amplifying The Voices Of Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

Amplifying the Voices of Survivors

The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.

In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.

I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.

I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.

But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.

Amplify Their Voices

Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:

  1. advocate for justice in academe,
  2. amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
  3. aggravate the status quo in the academy.

The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.

Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.

Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.

It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.

And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.

Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)

So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.

This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.