Intersectional and Anticarceral Approaches to Sexual Violence in the Academy

Rethinking campus policies.
By Grace Kyungwon Hong

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What might responses to sexual and gender-based violence and harassment on campus look like if we truly took intersectional and anticarceral approaches? How might we best bring decades of feminist research, scholarship, and activism to bear on our responses to sexual violence and harassment? These are the questions that animate the Sexual Violence Working Group, which operates under the aegis of the Center for the Study of Women (CSW) at the University of California, Los Angeles. Our approach complements and extends the analysis and recommendations of the AAUP’s 2016 report The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX.

CSW’s mission is to initiate and support feminist research on women, gender, and sexuality, with an explicit focus on social justice. Toward that end, CSW’s research projects have institutional as well as scholarly goals. The Sexual Violence Working Group embodies this dual mission: we aim to highlight existing research and support new research projects on effective approaches to curbing sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus.

The working group came into being as a response to student organizing around sexual violence and sexual harassment. We quickly realized that CSW needed to play a more active role in the campus conversation on sexual violence. CSW’s contribution to this conversation would derive from its strengths in feminist research in particular, something that we found has had less impact on existing campus policies than one might assume. We established the working group in fall 2017 and have spent the last year facilitating conversations both within CSW and in coordination with the office of the vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because policies on sexual violence and sexual harassment are coordinated across the University of California system, we also facilitated a discussion at the yearly meeting of UC gender and women’s studies chairs and faculty. Based on these conversations, we have identified several key priorities: promotion of intersectional approaches, or analysis of how gender is always mutually constituted by race, sexuality, class, disability, and other systems of power and precarity; opposition to carceral systems, not only by working to dismantle literal prisons but also by challenging a culture that imagines punishment and imprisonment as the main responses to societal problems; and sex positivity, an approach to Title IX that does not compel scholars of sexuality and gender to censor themselves.

New Approaches

The term intersectionality was coined by UCLA professor of law Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, but the concept, developed by feminist women of color in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has long existed. The concept of intersectionality is complicated, nowhere more so than when it is applied to sexual violence on campus. Taking an intersectional approach to sexual violence means understanding that the notion of a universally experienced “campus rape culture” is inadequate because it flattens out the very different hierarchies of power that are animated by and contribute to sexual violence. That is, we must contextualize sexual violence differently in relation to racism, homophobia, and other structures that already constitute the university as an institution. Sexual violence happens within the context of an institution that is inaccessible, hostile, or violent to communities of color, impoverished communities, and immigrant and refugee communities. Such structures already render certain students, staff, and faculty vulnerable to various forms of violence. This does not mean, of course, that we focus on violations against certain populations more than others. Rather, it is to say that an approach that assumes that all experiences of sexual violence have a common denominator or follow a universal narrative implicitly gives priority to those who fit that narrative best and marginalizes those who are already vulnerable. Likewise, rather than assume that the university is a neutral institution, we seek to understand how sexual violence is not an aberration but instead a predictable effect of the university’s functions.

This approach borrows from analyses by feminist women of color that deindividualize sexual violence. For example, in her foundational essay “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” Angela Davis observes that enslaved women were routinely subjected to sexual violence by those who owned them as property. This ubiquitous violation was not simply the result of individual owners’ lack of sexual restraint; rather, the entire institution of slavery was dependent on the dehumanization produced by routine violence. She thus calls the rape of enslaved women a form of “counterinsurgency.” Indigenous studies and legal scholar Sarah Deer argues that sexual violence has been and continues to be a cornerstone of the elimination of Native communities under settler colonialism. For example, the lack of jurisdiction of tribal police and courts over non-Native perpetrators of sexual violence against Native American women on reservation lands undermines tribal sovereignty and fortifies violence against Native American women. Following this structural and intersectional line of thought, and considering the university’s historical role as a guarantor of class stratification and a producer of imperialist knowledge, how might we contextualize sexual violence against white women and women of color, queer people, working-class people, immigrants, and refugees? With such an analysis, we would have to think of anti-sexual-violence measures in concert with organizing around campus policing, homelessness and hunger, affirmative action, undocumented students, tuition increases and financial aid, and unionization—particularly of precarious and underpaid workers or those who do dangerous work—as well as a host of other issues.

Our anticarceral approach also relies heavily on the work of feminist women of color and immigrant rights activists and scholars, who have long observed that responses to sexual and gender-based violence that rely on criminalization and policing render their communities and the women within them more, rather than less, vulnerable to harm. Many of the policies instituted by colleges and universities to address sexual and gender-based violence emphasize a legalistic process of evidence and proof and offer only the punishment of individual perpetrators as remedy, often in ways that exacerbate existing structural inequalities. As the AAUP notes in The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, individual sexual harassment and assault claims are not understood “as embedded within the broader social dynamics on and off campus.” “This segmented approach to sex discrimination,” the report continues, “promotes partial and legalistic analyses of the nature and scope of the problem, obscuring how biases or discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity may be ignored or even perpetuated by a narrow view of gender equality.”

At the same time, impunity is not the opposite of a culture of punishment but instead is its constitutive corollary. We can understand the universalizing, mandatory tendencies of more recent Title IX policies as a reaction to the pernicious culture of impunity that has allowed predatory sexual harassers and abusers, particularly those in positions of power as professors, administrators, and medical staff, to operate without consequence for years, sometimes decades. Impunity in this case is not the lack of action on the part of the university; the university is not absent when such conditions of impunity are allowed to occur. Rather, impunity is the policy that structures institutional response. The solution here is not simply to refortify the university as a punitive institution—particularly when such refortifications are implemented as a means of managing liability rather than in the pursuit of justice. As we have often seen, the reorganization of the university around punishment puts the burden of proof on the survivors and often does not even manage to punish the perpetrators. An exemplary case is that of Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at UC Berkeley who was accused of sexual harassment by four women. Berkeley’s internal investigation found that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior, but the institution claimed it was unable to mete out any punishment for past violations. Our critique of punishment-based models is not a call for impunity; instead, following transformative and restorative justice models pioneered by antiviolence activists, we call on institutions to rethink and reimagine what deindividualized and community-based accountability might look like and how it might be instituted on a university-wide level. While the AAUP’s Title IX report does not adopt a fully anticarceral approach, it does recommend that “colleges and universities should consider adopting restorative justice practices for some forms of prohibited misconduct.”

Finally, our working group advances a model of accountability that does not define a safe workplace as somehow entirely evacuated of sex and sexuality or resort to a politics of respectability. We are concerned about how feminist and queer teachers and researchers are rendered vulnerable by such approaches. These faculty members often teach courses and conduct research on gender, sexuality, and sex and institute pedagogies and methodologies that undermine conventional teacher-student and researcher-subject hierarchies. As the AAUP recognized in its Title IX report, “Faculty members who teach and present their research in sexuality studies, gender studies, and related disciplines are in essence being asked to self-censor or risk running afoul of Title IX. To safeguard academic freedom when faculty members stand accused, the AAUP’s longstanding recommendations on academic due-process standards must be maintained.” How might we not only allow nonnormative, queer, and feminist scholarship, pedagogy, and mentoring within the academy but indeed look to and learn from them as we build alternative models of accountability? Such models would not impose a queer exceptionalism to ethics but instead take into account the structural hierarchies that inhere in, for example, faculty-student relationships, and work to undermine those hierarchies rather than exploit them.     

Grace Kyungwon Hong is professor in the Department of Asian American Studies and the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is also a senior faculty research associate and the chair of the faculty advisory committee of the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA.