Changing the Narrative of Sexual Assault on Campus

Photo by Natalie Delpino

Dr. Jessica Harris, a faculty member of Higher Education and Organizational Change at UCLA, is currently conducting a research project that focuses on the experiences of undergraduate women of color who have experienced sexual assault while attending higher education. She is conducting interviews with these students at several different four-year higher education institutions in the U.S. Dr. Harris’ research will contribute to the literature on sexual assault by examining the issue of sexual assault within the context of college culture. While college students are often used as a convenient sample for studies, characteristics of this population are rarely included in the data analysis of previous research. College students are a specific population and share certain beliefs and experiences that may be influencing their experience with sexual assault. Excluding these shared characteristics limits our understanding of campus sexual assault and the way a culture “creates the OK to be violent to other people, passively and actively violent to other people of all genders, of all races, of all abilities” that manifests on college campuses.

College leaders’ failure to focus on sexual assault for multiple student populations makes it difficult to address the complexity of campus sexual assault. As a result, the lack of visibility for different populations makes some minoritized students feel “like it’s too much to ask that we focus on the intricacies of the complexities of sexual abuse on campus.” Through her research, Harris hopes to demonstrate the opposite: “We need to make [space for discussions about sexual assault] so that it’s not just centered on White, cis-, heterosexual, upper class women.” If a college campus fails to do so, then the experiences of women with multiple minoritized identities will continue to be ignored.

Harris explained that her research centers women of color because, “We don’t need to validate the experiences of women of color against those of white women … I’m just going to focus on women of color because they are normal and beautiful and themselves.” Studying the experiences of women of color also allow us to examine the relationship between racism, colonialism, and sexual assault.

The intersections of race and gender strongly influences campus sexual assault. Harris strongly believes “Our nation was founded on the rape and genocide of indigenous women. It was founded on the bondage of Black women’s bodies and raping their bodies. Right?” Sexual assault was part of “an economic need, a physical geographical need … it was out of control …terror and colonization.” As a country, the U.S. doesn’t take the time to acknowledge it’s history of violent actions; it is filled with the disgusting, terrible acts of raping, pillaging communities and women’s bodies. Universities were built on those stolen lands and were built because of slavery and the sexual assault perpetrated by colonizers. Race has everything to do with sexual assault, yet it’s often not included when discussing sexual assault on college campuses.

Harris’ research is a response to the lack of research on the experiences of women of color who are survivors of campus sexual assaults. Harris explained that as soon as she began recruiting for her study, she received numerous emails from students across the country who wanted to work as research assistants. These enthusiastic students demonstrate that there are people who are interested in the experience of women of color survivors and who are influenced in some way by this issue. After receiving numerous emails from students interested in joining the project, Harris feels that researchers should also focus “on people like students who want to fight the fight … [universities’] should be utilizing you in some way.”

While she still has several more interviews to complete, and institutions to visit, she has noticed a few common themes from the existing interviews. First, intergenerational trauma. According to Harris, participants include the violent relationships between their grandparents or parents when sharing their own story of sexual assault. Second, there are numerous participants who explore race when considering reporting. Harris explains that when the perpetrators are white men, some women express that “these are the most powerful people … they are in fraternities, they are in [leadership positions] …” As a result, survivors believe that they won’t be believed. On the other hand, if the perpetrators were men of color, women may worry about the respectability politics within communities of color.  

Third, there have also been women who haven’t initially report or shared their experiences because they didn’t feel empowered to name sexual assault. These women expressed feeling worried that if they attempted to call their experience rape or sexual harassment, people would tell them they were wrong. Harris argues that education is essential for addressing this ambiguity and believes that K-12 institutions are often failing to define sexual assault with students. Higher education institutions then fail to educate students on sexual assault beyond prevention or “how to not get…assaulted.”  

Fourth, re-traumatization through institutional attempts to educate others on sexual assault was also a theme. “Some people were saying the sexual assault awareness week is B.S. because it traumatizes victims in order to educate others on sexual violence, and really you’re not educating [others],” Harris explained when discussing the finding. This suggests that current attempts to address sexual assault on college campuses need to be evaluated in order to ensure that they effectively educate students without re-traumatizing survivors.

A few changes Harris would want to see include a curriculum depicting how patriarchy and racism manifest in assault. According to Harris, there needs to be a collaboration between K-12 and higher education institutions, stating, “We need to be educating people and educating people consistently.” Education can be used to get men to think about the ways they assert patriarchy and control over women’s bodies. This education shouldn’t be a one-and-done orientation or online training session. Harris would want to see this education as a built in educational intervention that fosters an “understanding [of] the systems of domination that you enact on campus and elsewhere.” Education can be a powerful tool in mitigating sexual assault on campus and in general.

Harris would also like to see changes with mandatory reporting across institutions. Women of color who wish to confide in a trusted faculty members may be hesitant, since they know they will be required to report whatever they are told; this makes talking to faculty members about sexual assault daunting for some survivors. Therefore, Harris would like to see mandatory reporting shift on college campuses, stating, “I think that there should be designated [faculty] that individuals can go to [to] receive care. [Faculty] that they can talk to …and not have to then be reported.”

When discussing the Trump administration and Betsy Devos’ attitude towards sexual assault on college campuses, Harris expressed, “I’m going to fight the fight” regardless of who is in office. While she states changes in political climate can affect how she approaches her research, she plans to do what needs to be done to create positive change regardless of who is in governmental positions of power.

Harris conducts her research because she wants to use what she learns to support women of color. She wants their experiences with sexual assault on college campuses to be seen and taken under consideration when discussing campaigns and policies at universities. And since White women are often treated as the “normal” narrative for sexual assault, Harris hopes that her research will challenge this normalcy and allow women of color to see and hear their stories.

If you are interested in learning more about Harris’ research, email her at [email protected]


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