Claim our bodies, claim our right,
Take a stand, take back the night!
Across the globe, the month of April is a time for communities to mobilize Take Back the Night rallies, Clothesline Project demonstrations, anti-violence marches, speak-outs and fundraisers. Their slogans reflect a continued call for a safer world during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
However, despite decades of research, activism, and policy efforts, there is little evidence to suggest that rates of sexual assault are decreasing. In particular, campus sexual violence has emerged as a threat to the health and well-being of college-aged women, a trend that affects all of us at a societal level.
As an anthropologist, my goal in examining cultural practices is to make the strange familiar- and the familiar strange. And campus sexual violence is a phenomenon that has become uncomfortably familiar.
Working from the central tenets of anthropology- understanding cultural systems holistically with attention to both cultural relativism and human rights- we can contribute to creating a safer world by examining campus sexual violence in a historical, culturally-embedded context. Placing the current campus sexual violence crisis in a historical context allows us to disrupt this familiarity and consider new solutions to decrease campus sexual violence rates and increase care for those affected by violence.
For decades, providing support services for victims of campus sexual violence relied upon a partnership between campus entities and community-based, often non-profit, organizations that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence and domestic violence. With the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and subsequent reauthorizations, Congress allocated funds to support anti-violence efforts in the United States, including funds to reduce crimes against women on campus. Supporting these measures, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990 requires schools to disclose crime statistics and information related to campus safety and security in an Annual Security Report.
In the meantime, advocates and activists were fighting for the right to bring perpetrators before on-campus disciplinary boards when the criminal justice system repeatedly failed victims. However, those campus processes have yielded uneven results, and provided opportunities for institutions to protect perpetrators and their own liability rather than support victims. Hearing the calls for reform, new guidance from the Department of Education in 2011 clearly situated campus sexual violence as a form of sexual harassment under Title IX, as sexual violence may result in the unequal distribution of educational resources based on gender.
However, despite the implementation of these policies, the story has not changed: rates of violence remain constant, women and men are asked to speak about their sexual experiences and victimizations in the context of consent, victims report a system of advocacy that fails to recognize their educational rights, and the role of high-risk alcohol consumption serves as a convenient symbol of the chaotic rite of passage that defines campus life.
I have held the hands of individuals while they cried and shared with me that “something happened.” As a professor, anthropological researcher, and victim’s advocate, I have heard firsthand the stories and experiences of those affected by campus sexual violence. We are confronted with the reality of a persistent social problem that has radiating effects on the individuals involved in campus sexual violence, their families, campus communities, and beyond. People are crying, and in some cases, screaming for help.
What, then, is the role for anthropology?
Through anthropological research, we can shift the conversation to one where the history of campus sexual violence advocacy and activism is honored and the scope of the problem is recognized. To do this, we must ethnographically capture the everyday challenges of responding to and preventing campus sexual violence within higher education institutions in the context of decades of action. Federal policies have been strengthened, campus structures handling sexual violence have emerged, the media is taking campus sexual violence seriously- yet, the violence persists.
In our research and daily practice, anthropologists must acknowledge that campus sexual violence is a persistent, ongoing problem that has witnessed decades of activism, advocacy, and legislation. As a community of scholars, advocates, and activists, we have a role in breaking cycles of violence and calling for new questions to be asked, for different voices to be heard, for histories of victimization to stop repeating, and to ultimately relieve suffering caused by violence.
Jennifer R. Wies, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Eastern Kentucky University. She co-edited Applying Anthropology to Gender-Based Violence (2015, Rowman and Littlefield) and Anthropology at the Front Lines of Gender-Based Violence (2011, Vanderbilt University Press) and recently authored Title IX and the State of Campus Sexual Violence in the U.S.
Photo credit: Clothesline Project sponsored by Eastern Kentucky University Women’s and Gender Studies Program.