Classroom Responses to Campus Sexual Assault
From Capitol Hill to the student union, sexual violence on college campuses has recently received a wave of much-needed attention. Institutions across the nation have commissioned special task forces to address rising reports of sexual assault, prompted by national efforts from state and federal lawmakers. Despite this new emphasis, an old assumption persists—student life and administrative officials consider handling sexual assault to be largely their problem. This perception creates a missed opportunity for faculty to consider their role in addressing sexual violence on campus.
As Simona Sharoni, Faculty Against Rape co-founder and Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh notes in a recent FAR press release, “Faculty must play a role in addressing the growing epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses because good teaching begins with compassion for students. Moreover, faculty are on the frontlines since survivors of rape or sexual assault tend approach a professor to share their experiences.” (Check out FAR’s 7 Things You Can Do to Prevent Campus Rape here).
Sharoni’s words should resonate deeply for those committed to feminist religious scholarship. Specialists in religion, gender, and sexuality have a special opportunity to directly engage their students in important questions about sexual ethics and models for human relationships. Legal and administrative actions might improve adjudication in campus sexual assault. However, forming students who think critically about sex and relationships could transform what happens at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.
This academic year I will be teaching a course on theology and youth ministry at a denominational seminary. The class will ask how sexual ethics for young people relate to gender norms and communal life. My three-fold approach is only one of many possibilities for extending campus sexual assault prevention to the classroom, but I hope it will prove fruitful:
1) Changing the Narrative: Young people who have encountered anti-rape efforts frequently receive messages based on risk minimization. The recommendations frequently place the burden of rape prevention on young women, who are told to avoid intoxication at parties, avoid walking through the campus alone at night, and avoid being alone with men they do not know. Challenges to this gendered approach have begun to emerge, but they require both allies and critical engagement.
In the classroom, feminist scholars can and should help our students ask why “rape prevention” often looks the way it does. Let’s encourage students to connect the dots between the theories and theologies we present and the everyday ways students encounter sex, gender, and power in their own relational lives, right where they live, work, and play.
2) Sexual Pleasure: Young people need access to vocabularies and frameworks for sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and heck, the fun of sex and sexuality. Why is this important for sexual assault and rape prevention? Because critical work demonstrates a troubling link between a “missing discourse of desire” and the sexual silencing that frequently accompanies sexual violence. An inability to talk about sexual pleasure or enjoyment often corresponds to an inability to talk about unpleasurable, coerced, or forced sexual experiences. This is especially true for young women and girls. Silence about sexual pleasure reinforces silence around rape and rape culture.
Feminist religionists and theological educators can model fruitful, open discourses about desire and pleasure. We can draw provocative questions from the ethical and religious traditions we engage. We can ask our students to reflect on the complexities of desire and pleasure. This work troubles the dynamics of power and consent that read flatly in university rape prevention handbooks. It also provides discursive and reflexive tools for the hard work of identifying what feels “good” physically, emotionally, and spiritually in mutual sexual experience.
3) Imagination: Thinking about nonviolent, life-affirming sexual ethics for young people should also be a process of new knowledge construction. As we talk about sexual pleasure, intimacy, and “good” sex, we help young people consider what they want in relation to their own bodies and in relation to the integrity and vulnerability of the bodies of others. And we can connect these reflections to practices of resistance. Our students can imagine alternative narratives about power, sexuality, gender, and relationships. This process can assist young people in articulating their dreams for relating with one another in new ways.
In my classroom, I’ll be asking my students to think about the regular practices of life together in religious community. They’ll be asked to imagine how those practices can foster more just, less violent embodied lives. How does Holy Communion reinforce the goodness and fragility of our bodies? How does baptism teach us about intimacy, grace, and mutual care? These types of questions have implications for sexuality, gender, and relationships. I hope to help my students find the connections.
Let’s continue to build better bridges between our teaching, university administration, and student life. I know many of us struggle to remain “in the loop” as universities respond to events happening outside the walls of our classrooms. Openly sharing our own contributions to campus sexual assault prevention, as FAR has done, can be a meaningful step in the right direction. In the comments, please share what else you might already be doing, or planning to do, to engage the topic of sexual violence among young people, on campus and beyond.