I have been speaking publicly about my experiences as a rape victim since I was an undergraduate student. I often find that I have a strong, immediate connection with fellow rape survivors -- a kind of bond that allows me to offer a distinct brand of sustenance. I have also had incredibly fulfilling conversations with the partners and friends of other rape survivors who want to provide support.
In this article, I outline the ways that we can talk about rape and sexual harassment in academe. I focus specifically on science because I am a scientist, but my insight can be applied more broadly. You might be wondering what place discussing anything political or activist in nature has in science. But recent events have reinforced the many ways in which science is, indeed, political.
First, let me say that if you are a rape victim, you are not alone. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately one in six American women and one in 33 American men have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. More than 90 percent of perpetrators are men. Statistically speaking, rape victims are everywhere, in every profession, including science -- where you can find me.
The statistics suggest that incidences of sexual violence may actually be greater in higher education. For example, among undergraduates, female students (ages 18 to 24) are three times more likely than women in the general population to experience sexual violence; the statistic increases to five times more likely for male students of the same age compared to men in the general population. According to RAINN, “transgender students are at higher risk for sexual violence. In fact, 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females and 4 percent of non-TGQN males.”
What’s more, sexual violence disproportionally affects persons who are already marginalized within higher education. For example, statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that white and black American women are about equally likely to be raped (2.2 and 2.8 per 1,000 females age 12 or older, respectively), but that rate is nearly double for American Indian and Alaska Native women (4.5 per 1,000).
As academics, we are in an ideal position to combat the epidemic of sexual violence in our profession and on our campuses. As mentors and role models, members of professional societies should be prepared to instruct the next generation of researchers not to perpetrate harmful or unethical behavior (in research, academe or life in general), and to model those attitudes personally. Particularly in these uncertain times, it is vital to teach science students skills for success in a global job market and in government, industry and academic roles. Resilience, self-confidence and respect for the autonomy of their colleagues are key proficiencies.
Learning to navigate safe relationships and thinking critically about sexual experiences and personal safety is a hallmark of the college period. For some students, higher education will be their first exposure to extensive, evidence-based sexual education. Elizabeth Smart writes brilliantly about how her abstinence-only education shaped her thinking as a rape survivor and provides a window into what students with similar instruction may be experiencing: she describes feeling like “chewed-up gum” after being assaulted. I have found decolonizing my perspective to be useful in this space and essential to my work as a scientist. The work of Kim TallBear illustrating how the emphasis on virginity and purity is part of a colonial perspective has been revolutionary for me, as have her thoughts on the perception of promiscuity. Understanding the impact of language on your students and colleagues will go a long way toward creating a supportive environment.
How Academics Can Address Sexual Violence
As a proud Queenslander, let me share one of my favorite ways of approaching solidarity: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (This quote is often attributed to Aboriginal artist and activist Lilla Watson, although she considered her work collective and preferred the quote to be credited to the 1970s Aboriginal activists group Queensland.)
Even if you are not a victim of sexual violence, you can advocate for and support victims. The support that good mentors can provide in an academic setting is significant.
Some practical suggestions for academics to address sexual violence and support students who have experienced such violence include:
- In your syllabus, outline a code of conduct and your nondiscrimination policy (particularly if your course involves fieldwork). Ensure that students understand their rights and responsibilities before class discussions. Model and enforce your own code of conduct, particularly in conversation with students and your colleagues. Overtly sexist behavior is easy for most people to identify, but bias is particularly insidious, especially for women in STEM. You can even take the Implicit Association Test for free online to identify your own biases.
- Particularly if you work with new students, consider highlighting where to find important contacts for your campus health and sexual assault first responders should they need the information in an emergency. Statistically speaking, you are almost guaranteed to teach at least one student each semester who is or has been a victim of sexual violence, so you might as well get on the front foot. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a fitting point to work in a brief mention.
- I have written previously about my thoughts on trigger warnings: “We don’t need trigger warnings. We need change.” I mostly still agree with myself, though I do think the terminology of “rape victim” is more appropriate than “rape survivor” now. (For some excellent resources on why, learn more here and here.) When you address difficult material, take the time to explore it carefully. Feel free to add a content note that the material may be difficult and explain the reasons why. Be sure to include information about campus or free resources for students who may have dealt, or are dealing, with issues raised during the course. If you are unsure, ask for insight from other experts.
- Support those groups and programs on your campus that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence. Offer to serve as a faculty liaison if they need one, dispute budget cuts to their essential work, and advocate on behalf of those they serve. Let the groups know that you are happy to help students who have experienced sexual assault where you are able to (such as with course selection, career advice or in other professional aspects). Listen to their advice about how to support students.
- If you are involved with a professional society and are interested in shoring up your ethical standards, check out my article “Drafting an Effective Ethical Code of Conduct for Professional Societies: A Practical Guide.” The article outlines 10 practical steps to setting up a code of conduct, and provides an introduction to the ethical considerations of each step in the process.
- Recently, initiatives to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment at professional conferences have sprung up across academic disciplines, from astronomy to entomology. Make your students aware of those groups, and if your students are attending conferences, ensure they are aware of professional expectations and how to manage unprofessional behavior.
For students who are victims of sexual violence, their academic progress or performance may be affected -- in addition to many other facets of their lives. One thing that we can all do is to help support healing by ensuring victims of sexual violence are able to live their best lives afterward. Here is some specific advice for writing letters of recommendation.
- Offer to address the topic in your letter directly, for example, “As an undergraduate, [student] was one of the many college students to be affected by [sexual violence/unfortunate events/extenuating personal circumstances/etc.].” Be sure to check what language the student would like you to use.
- Highlight achievements relative to circumstances. If the events resulted in an additional semester or a class that had to be repeated, emphasize the student’s progress and dedication to the discipline, technical proficiency or leadership.
- Avoid gender and other bias in writing letters of recommendation. Here’s a great list of suggestions from the University of Arizona.
Rape victims are powerful, and we are many. I talk about my experience as a rape victim because I care. During her incredible speech at the sentencing of her attacker, Emily Doe, who was assaulted at Stanford University in 2015, quoted author Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” My light is on.
Maggie Hardy (@DrMaggieHardy) is a research fellow in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her research program is focused on the discovery of new drugs from venoms.
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