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The importance of intersectional perspectives in tackling sexual violence in higher education

To date, the campaign has strived to raise awareness of pervasive sexual misconduct and its erasure among higher educational institutions in the UK. To hold the institutions accountable and advocate for change, we must recognise the structure of domination and centre the subjectivity of sexual violence within the uniquely unequal power relationships through the lens of intersectionality.

Crenshaw (1991) coined the term intersectionality based on the unique experience of the overlapping oppressions faced by Black women. It is argued that women of colour experience oppressions owing to the complex interconnection of racism and sexism. It is critical to examine these experiences within the hegemonic system and a variety of social, historical and cultural contexts.

Intersectionality accounts for the fact that the systems and attributes of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability and age are intertwined; to subjugate individuals who have complex social identities to unique forms of harm. In cases of sexual violence, perpetrators use various forms of sexual violence to exert power and exercise control and oppressions over the victims. When we try to understand and investigate the cases of sexual misconduct, we must take into consideration what constitutes and reinforces the inequality between victims and perpetrators. If we only perceive incidents of sexual violence as examples of gendered power domination, it is very likely that we will overlook the experience of women of colour, LGBTQ women, disabled women, older women and many more.

Systems of oppression often function on an individual, interpersonal and structural level. If we take a step back and look closely at our daily interactions and social practices, we may notice that gendered microaggressions and sexual harassment (in both physical and verbal forms) are normalised; both within interpersonal relationships in addition to being passively allowed by institutions and society more broadly. Sexist, racist and heterosexist ideas are deeply inscribed in our discursive actions and performative actions.

Women of complex marginalised identities are impacted by sexual violence disproportionately. Their testimonies are more easily called into question or dismissed as a result of biased assumptions, often built on racist tropes. For instance, women with black or minority identity or disability are portrayed to be sexually undesirable and hence are seen as more unlikely to experience sexual violence. Mass media representation of women of diverse identities often aggravates this problematic discourse and related rape myths.

While I reflect on the recent U.S Atlantic shooting that claimed the lives of six Asian female spa workers, it reminds me of the times when I feel unsafe, and experience both invisibility and hyper-visibility simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, it has been found that women of Eastern and South-Eastern Asian origins in the UK feel rather disheartened than shocked in reaction to the shooting. This reveals that Asian women in the UK have been facing precarious situations and hostile treatment as a result of the same underlying exoticisation and racialised fetishisation. Encounters of sexual harassment and/or violence are respectively complicated by gendered racial domination.

Similarly, Muslim (Asian) women are more likely to be subject to gendered Islamophobia which further invalidates their individual agency and makes it difficult for them to report or seek supports upon the encounter of sexual violence, including but not limited to sexual harassment and intimate partner sexual violence. Their experiences thus often go unheard and unrecognised.

Although I acknowledge the dominant stereotype of hyper sexualisation and submissiveness ascribed to Asian women may result in a higher possibility of sexual violence or harassment, it is important to bear in mind that the Asian female’s experience is not universal and should not be categorised into the homogenous suffering of women. We must actively seek to recognise the stereotypes and prejudices entrenched in UK society and universities as they undoubtedly have an impact on the occurrence and discussion of sexual misconduct in this context. Without acknowledging these cases of sexual misconduct, both the university campus and society implicitly justifies not only gendered domination - which manifests in the form of sexual misconduct - but also other forms of subjugation such as racialisation.

Educational institutions must employ intersectional analysis when handling individual incidents of sexual misconduct and more broadly when creating a policy if they are to adequately tackle the intersectional nature of harms induced by sexual violence. The intersection of different socially constructed identities, such as race, religion, sexuality or age, influences how (and whether) individuals (re)claim their agency and bodily autonomy. It is important to note that the idea of bodily autonomy is not restricted to women who regain control of their own female bodies in response to (potential) sexual misconduct. It is also applicable to individuals of diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions, including (gay) men, non-binary, pansexual people and transwomen. Policymaking demands the inclusion of the voices of marginalised survivors to comprehensively understand how the intersection of identities has contributed to the reproduction of sexual misconduct. These lived experiences of marginalised survivors serve as the inspiration for the practices of intervention and prevention.

Educational institutions are obliged to recognise the experiences of minority women and they must address the unique struggles and obstacles that prevent them from speaking out or coping with sexual violence trauma. Institutions must familiarise themselves with different interpretations of the notion of sexual misconduct as a result of cultural and/or religious differences. Increasing diversity in terms of the representation of sexual violence advisors, investigators, caseworkers and policymakers could also be conducive to effectively identifying cases of sexual misconduct and better supporting survivors’ idiosyncratic needs. The lived experiences of marginalised survivors could also help the institutions to design and deliver appropriate training sessions that correspond to different communities and achieve radical cultural reforms for all.

To conclude, an intersectional perspective renders the complexity and subtlety of power domination between the victims and the perpetrators visible. To raise awareness and tackle sexual misconduct, educational institutions must include and acknowledge the stories and experiences of survivors of marginalised identities. Institutions must construct their sexual misconduct policies and related precautionary measures (i.e. consent or bystander training) according to the needs of the survivors who are too often neglected, silenced or unheard.

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