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Behind the Scenes: Institutional Betrayal as a Motivator for Campus Sexual Assault Activism

March 29, 2018

Institutional Betrayal as a Motivator for Campus Sexual Assault Activism

By Chris Linder and Jess Myers

Though our research first began in the fall of 2013, the process of seeing this article published comes at almost the “perfect” time. With the roll back of Title IX’s Dear Colleague guidance and the palatable presence of #MeToo, including the already present backlash and critiques, taking a closer look at institutional betrayal in our institutions is all the more necessary.

As people engaged in the work of addressing sexual violence on college campuses, we noted a shift in momentum in attention to campus sexual violence around the Fall of 2013.  Shortly after Angie Epifano’s blog detailing her negative experience reporting sexual violence to her institution, we noticed a surge of survivors sharing their stories, similar to the #MeToo movement this year. Around the same time, students were organizing and filing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights about their negative experiences with reporting sexual violence to their campuses.  As we watched and experienced this shift in momentum, we wondered what was happening and had a hunch that social media was playing a large role in students’ ability to organize across campuses.  We embarked on a research study to better understand - from student activists’ perspectives - what contributed to their ability to create a shift in momentum related to addressing sexual violence on campus.

In addition to noting the shift in momentum, we also noted (similar to the #MeToo movement right now) ways that white, cisgender, presumably heterosexual women at elite institutions were centered in the discourse.  We intentionally sought to talk with activists who identified as queer, trans*, and people of color.  While many of the activists identified as queer, they also identified as cisgender and white, resulting in our data being similarly limiting as previous studies about sexual violence, which we believe is important to note.

During the time we were collecting data, one of the research team members, Jess, came across some research on institutional betrayal and sexual violence and shared it with the rest of the research team.  We instantly noted that many of our participants discussed concepts associated with institutional betrayal so we decided to go back through our data, looking at it through the lens of institutional betrayal.  Indeed, as we re-looked at participants’ narratives, the tenets of institutional betrayal were there - loud and clear!  For example, Sally captured so many tenets of institutional betrayal in just one statement describing her experience navigating her institution in the aftermath of sexual assault,

“I think when I was going through the reporting process, there weren’t clear procedures and timelines and I wasn’t kept up-to-date and I didn’t have a single contact person. So as someone that is that has experience trauma, who is really having to relive it through writing statements, unanswered questions, and really going back to that state constantly, that is-that was really difficult…. I faced some pressure from the school to reach settlement...to avoid the college being sued.”

Students in the study shared many examples of their institutions failing to appropriately support them in the aftermath of sexual violence.  

One of the most unique parts of this research team is that it was composed of people who fall in various places along the continuum of scholar-practitioner.  All of the members of the research team had worked in a women’s center at one point in their careers and specifically had experience supporting survivors of sexual violence.  At the time of the research, one member of the research team was a full-time faculty member, two members were full-time women’s center directors (one of whom was in a doctoral program part-time) and one was a full-time doctoral student with previous experience in a women’s center.  The variety of perspectives related to practice and scholarship around issues of sexual violence contributed to the strength of this article, specifically as it relates to the implications section of the article, which provide direct and clear suggestions for people striving to support survivors of sexual violence.

Article Abstract:

Institutional betrayal, feelings of treason that occur when an institution fails to prevent or respond appropriately to wrongdoings committed within the context of an institution, contributes to exacerbated trauma for survivors of sexual violence (Smith & Freyd, 2014).  Through a qualitative research study, we examine experiences of 10 sexual violence activist-survivors related to institutional betrayal.  Participants describe individual, departmental, and systemic institutional betrayal.  Additionally, we explore institutional betrayal as a motivator for campus activism and provide implications for student affairs educators striving to prevent and effectively respond to sexual violence on their campuses.

Read more at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19407882.2017.1385489

Chris and Jess will also discuss this article during the April 2018 Lunch and Learn session for NASPA's Center For Women. More information can be found here: https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/groups/center-for-women/initiatives/LunchandLearn