WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Eliminating Violence against Women

united nations day for the elimination of violence against womenI spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our research on sexual violence case attrition and why most rape cases do not go forward to prosecution. The way that cases move through the criminal justice system has been a concern to victims, practitioners, and researchers for the last 40 years. Our recent findings on sexual violence case attrition make it clear that most sexual assault reports made to the police do not result in the arrest of a perpetrator or in any prosecution. This isn’t because no one knows who the perpetrator is—it is not a reflection of random stranger-danger. Women are assaulted, raped, and murdered by someone they know much more often than by a stranger. This is true across the globe and yet the response to violence remains weak.

Societal response to reports of sexual violence reflects deep-rooted cultural ideals about women and a feminine ideal. In our research, we found that cases are less likely to move forward when women have engaged in behaviors that signal “risk taking" like drinking alcohol or are of lower status and reputation. It is the “ideal” woman who is more likely to be believed—the conservatively dressed woman, the woman of means who was shopping or walking home from her professional position, the woman whose career and family life reflects strict adherence to social norms. So, even while we celebrate a changing cultural environment that purports that women now have more agency, independence, and are “permitted” to embrace more of the behaviors that have always been okay only for men, women who were out alone and who had been drinking when they were assaulted are less likely to find that the man who raped her is arrested or prosecuted.

Now, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and after a week of more incidents of violence against women—both sexual violence and gun violence--- and amid concerns about the policy changes taking place on college campuses that will make women’s lives more difficult; and accounts of survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced, denied due process, and pushed back against on many fronts, we know we have not yet eliminated violence against women. Further, gender-based violence—violence that happens to women because they are women—is as blatant and as bigoted as violence perpetrated against one religious group. We are talking gender-based violence and femicide. How far have we really come? And what is needed to keep moving us closer to truly eliminating gender-based violence?

We have evidence of positive changes in rape law and sexual violence prevention, in care and support for survivors, and in bringing this issue of gender-based violence to the forefront both nationally and globally. We know that reductions in gender inequality can happen—this may occur when we elect more women to government leadership and we reverse the reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Internationally, there are many leaders, advocates, and research that help us move the action against gender-based violence forward.

Now we must focus attention on turning research into action and promoting the changes needed in the community. Change requires that we not reify one form of knowledge over another. It’s no surprise to advocates that victim characteristics and victim behavior are associated with whether or not charges of rape go forward to prosecution. Recently in Ireland, an individual was acquitted after senior counsel for the defense remarked on the fact that the young female complainant was wearing thong underwear. This led to protests, the display of women’s underwear, and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Meanwhile, it is reported that an independent review conducted by a legal expert who is examining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in Ireland is due at the end of the year. While such data will no doubt be valuable as are similar reports from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., these provide evidence of what women have known all along--that what women wear or what they drink is used to sway the court system and jurors and to reinforce common stereotypes about men, women, and rape.

Clearly we need to assure that funds for implementing prevention programs and innovative campaigns directed at ending violence against women are available, and that such programs and the research conducted on their impact must continue to draw on feminist roots. All such work on gender-based violence also must be informed by intersectionality—the product of Black women’s activism and scholarship. For example, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement that later became a global phenomenon to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society. #MeToo supports all who experience sexual violence and grounds this work in the real experiences of all women—young and old, Black, white, and brown, rich and poor. Research, undertaken in a setting that allows the linking of activism with the research, and that highlights the importance of data as a social change agent, is a necessary step to ending gender-based violence. A call to link activism and research should not be confused with activist research that seeks to prove a particular hypothesis. Sound principles of scientific research must be followed. However, we must assure that the voices of survivors and the skills and approaches of grass roots organizations underpin this work. These efforts are critical to success in eliminating violence against women and girls in all communities across the globe.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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Stop Pretending Sexual Assault Can't Happen in Your School

This commentary by Nan Stein and Bruce Taylor was originally published by Education Week on October 4, 2018.

Christine Blasey FordThe sexual assault allegations leveled by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have consumed the country. The events as described by Ford are not an anomaly for U.S. teens. As researchers, we know that there is a high prevalence of sexual assault among teens today and that schools are not implementing effective strategies to address this kind of violence. But the data haven't always been available—it is only in about the last two decades that we can reliably measure the prevalence of sexual assault among teens.

We are researchers, not psychologists—one of us (Bruce Taylor) is a criminologist, the other (Nan Stein) is a former middle school teacher who focuses on curriculum development and teacher training. With the support of grant funding from the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, we have spent the last 10 years conducting research on school-based interventions that has taken us into middle schools in the Cleveland suburbs and New York City. Using rigorous scientific data, we have created interventions designed to prevent the kinds of behaviors Christine Blasey Ford described in her testimony—and they have been shown to be effective. Our 2010 study, "Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School," was one of two evidence-based community-level primary prevention strategies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified in 2014 as effective at reducing sexual violence.

The general public's opinion of sexual violence is largely shaped by high-profile crimes they encounter in the news. In 1989, three high school football players from Glen Ridge, N.J., sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped girl. For years, these boys had been throwing wild drunken parties. Yet, they never got in trouble until there was a rape—their conviction came four years later. In 2012, there was another incident that garnered a lot of attention. In Steubenville, Ohio, the rape of a drunken female teenager by two drunken high school football players at a party gripped the nation; the boys were later convicted of sexual assault. The incident was recorded by some of the partygoers, and images were posted on social media.

Sexual assault, including the incidents above, can have a devastating impact on its victims. Although it can take years or decades for victims to begin to address the trauma and come forward to report the incidents (as we are currently witnessing), the rumors and whispers may begin the following day at school, in the hallways, and over lunch—even when some of the participants were too drunk to remember anything. The underreporting of sexual violence has been documented by researchers extensively. According to a 2017 report from the Justice Department, only 23 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police.

In the early 1980s, when Ford alleges her assault occurred, there weren't many surveys of teenagers focused on either perpetration or victimization of sexual violence by their peers. For example, one of the nation's largest youth surveys conducted by the CDC did not start measuring sexual violence until 1999. Perhaps officials doubted that sexual violence among teens happened, or they assumed it was only perpetrated by strangers carrying a weapon who jumped out of a dark alley. It certainly could not have happened among privileged white kids, perpetrated by good white boys who attended private schools where the dress codes require jackets and ties.

Today, we find ourselves swimming in statistics from an abundance of surveys measuring sexual violence among youths. Based on the CDC's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 10 percent of high school students were sexually assaulted in 2017, with females (15 percent) experiencing higher rates than males (4.3 percent). This was in line with another national survey: An analysis of 2003, 2008, and 2011 National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence survey data of 15- to 17-year-olds found that between 12 and 18 percent of girls and about 3 percent of boys were victims of sexual assault.

When it comes to dating, the rates of sexual assault are even higher. In the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence conducted in 2013-2014 for dating youth 12-18 years old, funded by a grant from the Justice Department, the researchers found a sexual assault rate of 17.8 percent for girls and 17.3 percent for boys. The high rate of sexual assault among teens is of particular concern because our research has found that it is often a precursor to intimate partner violence.

There are at least three steps that schools can take to address sexual violence among teens.

1. Implement evidence-based effective interventions. In addition to the approach we laid out in "Shifting Boundaries"—which combines classroom lessons with schoolwide interventions addressing sexual harassment as a precursor to teen dating violence for middle school youths—other programs have been recognized for their efficacy, including Safe Dates (a school-based teen dating-violence prevention program for 8th and 9th graders); Coaching Boys into Men (a program where high school athletic coaches promote respectful behavior among their players to prevent sexual assault); and Bystander Intervention (an approach where bystanders are trained to interrupt potentially harmful situations).

2. Implement schoolwide interventions—not merely classroom lessons. The key components of our evidence-based Shifting Boundaries intervention include working with students to map safe and unsafe areas of the school so that staff can make necessary modifications to prevent violence, creating quasi "stay away" or restraining orders to protect victims, and saturating the school's hallways with messages and posters on safe teen relationships.

3. Conduct staff training. All faculty members and staff should understand the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault among teens and how to implement evidence-based strategies.

You might think that school districts would welcome these interventions. However, as researchers, we have experienced resistance, particularly from high-performing, privileged schools when attempting to introduce prevention programs. Despite scientific survey data demonstrating the pervasiveness of sexual violence among teens, some school districts apparently still believe "sexual violence can't happen here." What other evidence do they need to start taking this problem seriously? It is time for K-12 schools—private and public—to begin to implement evidence-based strategies designed to address sexual assault.

NanSteinBruceTaylorPhotosNan Stein, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she conducts research on sexual harassment and gender violence in schools. Bruce Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in public health at NORC at the University of Chicago, where he studies the etiology of violence and evaluates violence prevention programs.

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