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Research is foundational to "Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault"

#MeToo poster
Research is foundational to "Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault"

An Overview of the Clayman Institute’s BSCA Series' Research

Jan 22 2018

Gender research is the foundation of feminist activism because it bolsters the movement with empirical data. In tandem with the Clayman Institute’s founding mission of conducting and supporting gender research, the 18-month-long "Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault" series underscored the importance of gender research, and specifically to the fight to end violence against women—a central tenet of the feminist movement. This series sought to combat violence and assault from variouslenses: from that of manhood and masculinity, to primary prevention tactics; the intersectionality of racism and sexism; education; and, finally, solutions and best practices. The common thread of research weaved its way through this series of talks, and signified the critical importance of research to addressing and ending sexual assault.

As evidence in the first BCSA event on “Masculinity and Men,” gender research shows that the effort to end sexual violence against women includes men, and is not solely a “women’s issue” or women’s responsibility. Dr. Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at University of Southern California, contended that feminism in fact encompasses the best interests of men, thus qualifying it as a “men’s issue” as well. Within this movement, he found, men are met with an extreme response from both endpoints of critique and approval. On the one hand, they are scrutinized for getting involved, with the accusation being that they do so just to meet or placate women. At the same time, their male privilege often results in them receiving “extra credit” for merely expressing solidarity with the cause: “They made all the men stand up and we all gave them a round of applause for being there (at an anti-violence event),” commented one of Messner’s interview subjects. Messner also examined the demographic expansion of feminist, anti-sexual violence allyship from middle-class, white men in 1970s and ’80s to that of black and brown men, the latter of whom could empathize with the experience of institutionalized oppression and inequality.

Expanding gender research to incorporate race was the centerpiece of Kimberlé Crenshaw's Jing Lyman Lecture, as part of the BCSA series. A professor of law at University of California Los Angeles and Columbia University, Crenshaw delved into invisibility of black female sexual assault victims from discussions of both race and gender violence. Despite being subject to both forms of social and bodily violence, their narratives, names, and experiences have been systematically erased from cultural memory. Crenshaw substantiated this assertion by establishing that the number of audience members who knew Michelle Cusseaux, a black woman killed by the police, was significantly lesser than those who knew black male police victims, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. She encouraged the audience to view police brutality towards black women as a highly pervasive yet ignored phenomenon, rather than an exception to the norm. An intersectional framework, Crenshaw argued, allows people to examine how their work and actions can inadvertently leave marginalized people, like black women, out of key decision-making processes.

The BCSA series segued to classroom education in the following event featuring the research of Stanford Medicine’s Dr. Clea Sarnquist and Dr. Michael Baiocchi, who have pioneered a more global outlook to the conversation about sexual assault. According to national surveys, 46% of Kenyan women experience sexual assault as children, with 52% of the perpetrators being the victims’ boyfriends. Only 6% of these victims actually press charges, while the rest are severely underreported due to the stigma, fear of retaliation by perpetrators, and corruption that allows defendants to pay their way through the charges. In an attempt to directly combat this rampant yet resolvable phenomenon, Sarnquist and Baiocchi partnered with the US-based NGO, No Means No Worldwide. Together, they have developed and evaluated targeted programs for school-going boys and girls to educate them about gender violence and gender norms. The primary focus of the girls’ program is verbal and physical self-defense, along with empowerment by reiterating the idea that they are “worth defending.” The boys’ program is directed towards emulating positive behaviors by promoting healthier notions of gender norms and masculinity, and supporting women and girls in the community as third-party interveners.

 This “dual-gender” program proved to be effective in remodeling the children’s thinking patterns and behaviors from an early age. In their follow-up sessions and subsequent findings, 35% of the girls reported using the skills they had learned to stop a sexual assault. Thus, preventive education proved to be a highly efficacious approach in these Kenyan settlements. Sarnquist and Baiocchi’s on-the-ground research through their collaborative educational program yielded positive results, which can be adapted to preventive educational models in other organizations and communities.

Zerlina Maxwell reiterated this need for early and consistent education as an effective solution to dissipating the pervasive rape culture in the final BCSA series event. Maxwell, the Director of Progressive Programming for SiriusXM, began her lecture by establishing the definition of “rape culture” as a “continuum of threatened violence against women,” borrowing from Emilie Buchwald’s Transforming a Rape Culture. She then dissected the elements of rape culture, which include victim-blaming, the false rape allegations myth, and the trivialization of rape. Maxwell called out the media as the “worst perpetrator” of this culture, citing examples in popular music (“Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke) and ad campaigns (BMW, Belvedere), as not only condoning but also perpetuating a culture of sexual assault. She also highlighted the intersection between Thicke’s lyrics and actual quotes from perpetrators to victims, originally revealed and publicized by Project Unbreakable. At the same time, she considered social media, including hashtags such as #MeToo, as a physical space for survivors to have a conversation about their experiences.

In terms of solutions and best practices, Maxwell emphatically recommended defaulting to empathy instead of judgment when listening to a survivor’s narrative. Questioning a survivor’s story, according to Maxwell, can “compound their trauma but also let the rapist go free.” Alluding to the fact that 90% rapists on college campuses are repeat offenders, she contended: “picking apart a survivor’s narrative for discrepancies is time that could be spent punishing a serial rapist.” In her final moments, she credited the current wave of “fearless” expositions by survivors to the history of feminism and specifically the strides around sexual assault by second-wave feminism. Maxwell encouraged the audience to critically examine and call out all forms rape culture manifested in today’s media, claiming that “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying (enough) attention.” This interventionist assertion aptly culminated the BCSA series, which demonstrated how research can ignite action.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.