Life at the Margins: A closer look at sexual assault

    In September, Northwestern administrators received figures that could redefine how the University addresses sexual assault: While the public face of sexual misconduct on campus remains straight, white and female, queer students and students of color suffer sexual assault at far greater rates. 

    “Historically, if we look nationally, it probably has looked more like a white, straight, cisgender women’s issue,” Lisa Currie, Director of the Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE) said. “However, when we look at our data, we know that’s not the reality.”

    In news that activists and counselors say speaks to gaps in the University’s sexual assault prevention program, as well as broader questions of inclusion on campus, the recent Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct found nearly twice as many LGBTQ+ students reported unwanted sexual penetration as their heterosexual peers. While 22 percent of heterosexual undergraduates reported fondling without consent, 30 percent of LGBTQ+ students did, according to Joan Slavin, director of Northwestern's Title IX office. 

    "When we look at our data, we know that’s not the reality." 

    - Lisa Currie

    “It’s pretty consistent across situations that marginalized people experience more violence and sexual assault,” Jackie Elder, Co-President of Northwestern’s Rainbow Alliance, said. “I think it’s probably an issue of resources and just marginalization in general.”

    NBN obtained the data in an email from the Student Affairs Assessment office, which was not included in their published report released September 28.

    “The numbers of survey respondents identifying as LGBTQ+ or students of color were sufficiently large for analysis,” SAA wrote in an email. “But these numbers were not part of the report, which was intended to be an overview of the data focusing on differences in incidence based on gender and student status; student attitudes; reporting; perpetration; and knowledge of resources.”

    Because of the low number of total responses from individual groups, the University lumped all non-Asian and non-white undergraduates as “underrepresented students.” Collectively, 20 percent of this demographic faced unwanted sexual contact, compared with 17 percent of white students. They are three percentage points more likely to face sexual harassment. SAA did not respond to a later request for data on Asian students. 

    Part of the federal government’s broader push to keep schools accountable for preventing sexual assault on campus, the survey yielded similar results to a larger study conducted by the Association of American Universities at 27 institutions. The AAU study also found similar disproportionate rates of violence among queer students and students of color. 

    “It will be very helpful that we have quantitative evidence... that shows [LGBTQ+ students] do experience violence at a higher rate than their straight, white peers,” said Weinberg senior Erik Baker, who represents MARS, College Feminists, SHAPE and Title IX at Northwestern Univeristy in ASG and also served on the committee that produced the report. He said that disparity “is not always reflected in the work that is done at any level at Northwestern.”

    The report aligns with what CARE has suspected since at least 2014. That year, Kyra Jones, a then-senior researching her gender studies thesis, found that African American and LGBTQ+ students visited CARE at disproportionate rates. While only five percent of students identify as African American, they comprise 20 percent of students who attended CARE. As of 2015, CARE reports that number is 14 percent. 

    “At first it was really scary, like oh my God, are black women at Northwestern just getting raped more than anyone else?” Jones said. “That is one possibility, but the more research I did, it seems there may be more than one factor.”

    Identifying those factors, both in regards to LGBTQ+ students and students of color, has become the newest front for a sexual assault prevention campaign that considers itself one of the most progressive in the nation.  

    “There’s a number of us who keep saying I think we’re building a model program, not trying to get ahead of ourselves and sound too vain,” Currie said.  “It’s true. Compared to a lot of campuses who are doing little to nothing, we are doing outstanding work.”

    With the help of a federal grant, CARE will launch two task forces this year to examine prevention among African American and queer students, exploring why they experience more violence and why survivors from these communities visit CARE more often. 

    Student leaders interviewed – including Jackie Elder, Erik Baker, and Haley Hinkle, who headed Northwestern’s “It’s on Us” campaign, a series of videos stressing the need for bystander intervention against sexual violence – agreed Northwestern made sincere efforts to be inclusive in sexual assault education. Hinkle pointed to NU Athletics 2014 “It’s on Us” video, which used a diverse cast in race and gender. Elder cited the Wildcat Welcome Essential NU on sexual assault intervention, which includes a situation with a transgender student. 

    “I definitely see the effort happening,” Elder said. “Then it’s a puzzle: where’s the disconnect? Why isn’t the message getting across?”

    Student leaders, CARE workers and survivor advocates have suggested a slew of reasons for why Northwestern hasn't made progress, emphasizing that this is not just a Northwestern issue, or even just a modern one. 

    “I don’t think it’s really complicated: Marginalized voices are marginalized.”

     -Erik Baker

    “I don’t think it’s really complicated: Marginalized voices are marginalized,” Baker said. “Social movements stretching for centuries about issues on gender and gender-based violence have been dominated by white people and straight white people especially.”

    Baker said students often enter sexual assault activism through bystander intervention campaigns like “It’s On Us” that can focus on stereotypical situations in which a man takes advantage a woman. This lens can prevent students from recognizing when assault happens to others. 

    “It’s already hard for people to intervene in the most normative situation,” Elder said. “And then every step you take away from the most normative situation would logically make it one step harder for people to intervene.”

    To this end, Northwestern’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office distributes information on same-sex sexual misconduct in its training sessions. But Erin Clark, assistant director of CARE, said there’s more work to be done. She pointed to situations in which an LGBTQ+ high school couple reported domestic violence to the police. Officers ultimately arrested both students because they couldn’t figure out who was the perpetrator. 

    “People will have a hard time discerning when it is a queer relationship or a same gender relationship how the narratives they’ve been taught about domestic violence and sexual violence apply,” Clark said.

    Distrust of police can also isolate black survivors, according to Jones, preventing them from stepping forward.

    “Survivors in general just don’t want to go to police,” Jones said. “But for black people there’s the added fear of cops embedded in our culture because historically we’ve been mistreated by cops and especially now with all the media attention that’s been put on police brutality.”

    Ultimately, Jones said, the lack of diversity on campus can work against students of color. In addition to or in lieu of counseling, survivors often rely on friends for support after the trauma. Most victims know their assaulter and will seek support from those who don’t. But because of the close-knit nature of the African American community at Northwestern, Jones said students may be unwilling to confide in friends, who will often know the perpetrator. As such, they turn to CARE and other university services.

    “Because of racism in the world and within Northwestern a lot of black people I know and a lot of students of color I know keep within that community,” Jones said. 

    Njoki Kamau, a women’s rights activist and associate director of the Women’s Center since 1991, said many of the students she’s worked with dealt with similar problems. 

    “If you file a complaint when you have a small support system like that, especially students of color and the LGBTQ+ community, then you lose friends and where is your support?” Kamau said. 

    Jones said it’s on Northwestern to foster a more inclusive environment. 

    “If black students felt like they had more of a campus that understood what they were going through, they’d probably be more willing to venture out and join non-culture specific groups and the culture of the people who are in those non-specific clubs, without feeling like they’re at risk for having racist stuff thrown at them,” Jones said. 

    But Kamau and Jones also offered a potential positive explanation for why students of color and LGBTQ+ students visit CARE more often. Because these groups have in fact been included in the conversation around sexual misconduct, they know about and access the resources available to them. 

    “[The numbers] tell me that things have improved, that we are breaking the silence on this,” Kamau said. “It tells me that students of color are reaching out for help, that they are feeling empowered. Does that mean that all students of color are speaking up? No, of course not.”

    The taskforce has yet to launch, but CARE and student groups are already trying to address these communities, even if they have yet to form concrete plans. 

    “The onus has to be on the more privileged members of the activist community to build trust,” Baker said. 

    Hinkle said the “It’s on Us” movement plans to focus on specific identity groups, but are first reaching out. “We would never want to try and represent kids from other identity backgrounds without having worked with them extensively,” Hinkley said.

    When CARE hired new staff last winter, they focused on finding people who understood how race and identity can impact sexual and domestic violence, Jones said. Joan Slavin, director of Northwestern’s Title IX office, wrote in an email that the University already has staff and investigators trained to handle underrepresented groups and LGBTQ+ students. They will also be adding online training for staff, faculty and grad students that address sexual assault, stalking, data and domestic violence in the LGBTQ+ community. 

    “I do not think that LGBTQ students or students of color have been left out of the sexual assault conversation at Northwestern,” Slavin wrote in an email. “LGBTQ students and students of color have been involved in the Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence and in other student groups working for awareness and change with respect to sexual violence."

    As the year progresses, the taskforces will mine the Campus Climate survey data. Focus groups will gather. Awareness campaigns are set to launch. In June, Northwestern updated its sexual assault policy to give a clearer definition of consent and to expand the definition of sexual misconduct to include dating violence and stalking, a potentially pivotal change for addressing sexual violence within these communities. Currie said misconduct within specific identity groups doesn’t always fit the stereotype. 

    “Maybe it’s not sexual assault,” Currie said. “Maybe it’s more domestic violence or maybe it’s stalking. I’m not trying to make generalizations, but we do know that it looks different.”

    Even if the current national view is that sexual misconduct is a white female issue, Northwestern’s campus is waking up to the broader impact. 

    “I think that is sort of another frontier that still awaits us,” Baker said. “This data has lit a fire under people in that direction at least.”

    Editor's note: Haley Hinkle and Erik Baker have contributed to NBN in the past.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.