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  • Teaching about Sexual Violence in Higher Education:Moving from Concern to Conscious Resistance
  • Corrine C. Bertram (bio) and M. Sue Crowley (bio)


Sexual violence against women remains as serious a problem today as it was in the 1970s. Two generations after radical feminists brought the ugly realities of that violence to the forefront, little of significance about the prevalence or consequences of sexual violence has changed. With that in mind the focus on sexual violence and pedagogy in this paper is based on three interrelated factors. First, sexual violence is understood to be a complex set of cultural practices used to enforce and maintain not only sexism but multiple forms of oppression. Second, the traumas produced by that violence provide a nexus from which to explore how oppressions operate to divide women (and men) across racial and class lines. And finally, survivors are the focal point for analysis because the lived reality of sexual trauma is a bodily enactment of power. As Cvetkovich writes, "trauma becomes the hinge between systemic structures of exploitation and oppression and the felt experience of them."1

The paper is organized into three main sections. We begin with an analysis of five obstacles to change in the form of cultural and pedagogical practices, followed by a discussion of counterstrategies and obstacles in the classroom, and finally, we offer specific classroom discussions and assignments that encourage students to move from concern for survivors to an awareness of the social pathologies that maintain the status quo.

Obstacles to Change: Cultural and Pedagogical Practices

In our experience resistance in the classroom often erupts in response to content that presents sexual violence as both pervasive and linked to other forms of marginalization. In the following section we outline five forms of this resistance in and out of classrooms—the disguise of openness, the false comfort [End Page 63] of concern, social constructions of the innocent victim, distanced objectivity, and psychologizing sexual violence.

The Disguise of Openness

Although various personal and social mechanisms that serve to marginalize survivors remain steadfastly in place, discussions and representations of sexual violence permeate US media. Ubiquitous images brought to viewers by television talk shows and "entertainment" like Law and Order: SVU flood the television landscape. Sexual violence may be discussed more openly than in decades past, but this relative openness disguises the concomitant lack of change in the attitudes about and incidence of sexual violence. One example of openness takes the form of representations of sexual assault in popular culture that serve as evidence of a postfeminist discourse. These discussions operate to represent feminism as simultaneously self-evident and redundant, thereby silencing feminist voices through a discourse that appears "pro-feminist."2 In these discussions feminism is represented as an old set of politics rather than an ongoing political project. Since feminism has presumably achieved its goals, it is no longer needed in current discussions of women's lives. Foucault's classic work on the proliferation of sexual discourses in the Victorian era (1978) and subsequent work by Alcoff and Gray and by Bell are helpful here as a way of understanding how supposed openness does not offer a subversion of dominant ideologies; the multiplication of contexts in which we discuss sex and sexual violence does not necessarily ensure counterhegemonic discourse, talk as a form of action that shifts power relationships.3 We would argue that the disguise of openness about sexual violence places survivors at risk in many college classrooms where their lived experiences are referenced in ways that may expose them to additional, insidious trauma.4 Brown describes insidious trauma as "traumatogenic effects of oppression that are not necessarily overtly violent or threatening to bodily well-being at the given moment but that do violence to the soul and spirit."5

The False Comfort of Concern

Linked to the disguise of openness is the false comfort of concern, a social strategy of avoidance designed to keep discussions about women's experiences of sexual violence contained within contexts that cannot subvert dominant norms about either sex or violence. Ormond reveals the problem inherent in a response focused solely on concern: "When the audience focuses upon the emotion, the level of comprehension required...


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pp. 63-82
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