Intersectionality, Education, and Advocacy against Sexual Violence
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Intersectionality, Education, and Advocacy against Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is an undeniable social reality. Statistics indicate that one in four women experience sexual violence and that the perpetrators are mostly intimate partners. With up to one third of adolescent girls reporting to have had a forced sexual encounter, the problem of sexual violence deserves serious discussion. Recent events on college campuses reflect this reality in institutions of higher learning. Most instructors are, however, faced with the dilemma of instructing about sexual violence and advocating against it since academic instruction standards require that facts be presented in a nonbiased manner in order to promote intellectual stimulation. Class instruction that ignores students’ lived experiences, however, fails to meet the goal of higher education, which is to provide a better life.

Educators should be concerned with these central questions: What is effective instruction? At what point should experience be part of classroom discussion? What theoretical frameworks are adequate enough to ensure effective instruction? My position in this essay is that effective instruction should be dynamic and holistic in its approach to interrogating complex social realities, including experience. I believe intersectionality provides that theoretical framework.

Sexual violence as a social reality can only be taught effectively if we interrogate the complex social variables that inform it. Admittedly, the goals of education are to expand students’ knowledge base and to challenge their existing values. Often forgotten is the fact that students’ intellectual abilities do not operate in a vacuum. When instructional content is about values and lived experience, such as in the case of sexual violence, then classroom material must address this reality. Recent reports indicate the prevalence of sexual violence on college campus. The White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault, for example, acknowledges that one in five students experience sexual assault during their college years.5 Susanna Ito of the American Civil Liberties Union estimated in 2010 that 95 percent of campus rapes in the United States go unreported.6 Efforts toward responding to sexual violence on college campuses [End Page 180] have failed often because of instructive guidelines and approaches that ignore the complex social variables that inform both the subject of sexual violence and the experience of students on campus.

College campuses are not islands. Addressing sexual violence requires examining the roots of violence, including the structures of power that influence the socialization process that students and communities have undergone. Socialization instills humans with norms, some of which—for example, patriarchy—derive from restrictive socioreligious ideologies. Such ideologies operate in a dichotomized mindset that views social groups within binaries of power relations that justify norms of oppression, marginalization, and control, including violence against the other. While there are within these ideologies social norms that counter such violence, the failure to interrogate them during college instruction leaves students largely unaware of possible options for redress.

To engage patriarchal assumptions embedded in religious traditions is not only to help students develop their intellectual abilities but also to provide them with tools of engagement in real-life experience. As studies in religion familiarize students with the hermeneutics of scriptural interpretation in order to deconstruct patriarchal norms that sanction sexual violence, they should also equip students with advocacy tools toward addressing sexual violence in their life. The assumption that lived experience is personal and private and therefore inappropriate for class discussion neglects the reality that the personal is always political.

As social constructs, discourses on sexual violence are informed by various perspectives—religious, sociological, feminist, and many more. Interdisciplinary approaches to this subject illustrate the complex social formation of such behaviors as sexual violence and how multiple lenses of analysis help discern the structural roots of this violence. Recognizing that violence is embedded in institutions of power, including race, class, the family, education, the law, and religious norms, is a significant step in identifying and stemming the behavior.

The need for an appropriate approach to instructing and ending sexual violence brings to mind intersectionality: a framework of instruction and advocacy. Identification of complex intersectional solutions to sexual violence must include the incorporation of a trigger warnings component in classroom discussions. Even as instructors work at negotiating academic standards...