It’s Time to Include Relationship Violence in the Campus Sexual Assault Conversation

By Elizabeth Wilmerding

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Recent strides have been made in sexual violence prevention in the college environment, although we still have a long way to go. To anyone working in this field for years—or decades—this small amount of progress can make one think, “It’s about time.” It’s time to acknowledge the amount of trauma occurring on college campuses. It’s time for survivors to get access to the support and services they deserve. It’s time for federal laws, state laws, and campus policies to promote cultures of nonviolence. And, it’s time to bring dating and domestic violence into the campus sexual assault conversation.

Our culture and policies around sexual violence are changing because our level of understanding is changing. Yet, we’re continuing to leave out dating and domestic violence. We now know that up to 90% of survivors of attempted or completed rape know their attackers. We know that 1 in 5 women will experience such an assault in their lives, as will 1 in 33 men and 1 in 2 trans* or gender-nonconforming people. We have begun to consider sexual violence from an intersectional perspective, recognizing that survivors have complex identities before an assault, and that those identities impact their experiences of trauma and healing in unique and complex ways. While our narratives around sexual assault and rape have shifted to include these realities, they haven’t changed enough to account for the intersections between sexual violence and relationship violence.

If we want to truly change our culture and eradicate interpersonal violence, it is critical that we acknowledge the link between sexual violence and relationship violence. One in 3 women have experienced violence from an intimate partner. Of these hundreds of thousands of women, 40-45% will experience sexual assault or rape as part of the abuse. New data shows us that 1 in 4 men may experience dating or domestic violence and these figures and those for trans* and gender-nonconforming people may underestimate the rate of incidence. Imagine if we dedicated the same amount of time, resources, and expertise to preventing dating and domestic violence on our campuses as we devote to preventing sexual assault and rape.

Many colleges and universities educate their students about affirmative consent, bystander intervention techniques they can use at parties, and definitions of sexual assault and rape. What if we expanded these dialogues to include the extreme jealousy and stalking that can indicate dating violence, and the intimidation and displays of power that often accompany domestic violence? What if we made sure undergraduate students understood that dating violence can happen in a variety of relationships, including those involving hook-ups or friends-with-benefits? And, what if we spoke with students about the many shapes domestic violence can take in marriages and long-term relationships?

I suspect that, by emphasizing the links to dating and domestic violence in our conversations about sexual violence, we will be able to greatly increase awareness of many types of interpersonal violence and reduce their occurrence and impact. Not only that, but we will validate the experiences of the many survivors whose experiences are not limited to one categorization of harm. True violence prevention depends on having a broad and nuanced understanding of both the current climate and our vision for the future. If we truly hope to end sexual assault, rape, stalking, dating violence, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, we must have a comprehensive approach. It’s time to include dating and domestic violence in our conversations and strategies about ending sexual violence on college campuses.


eliz1Elizabeth Wilmerding is pursuing a Master’s degree (2017) at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. Her background is in the prevention and support of survivors of sexual and relationship violence, in campus and community settings. A former intern at Futures Without Violence, she is currently doing a field placement at UC Berkeley’s PATH to Care Center, the university’s organization devoted to violence prevention and survivor support. She lives in Oakland, CA.

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