Stopping Sexual Violence in Higher Education

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so we felt it important to discuss the prevalence of discrediting and erasing survivors’ experiences, how STEM fosters sexual violence, and what we can do prevent sexual violence in our lives. Though we are discussing statistics and systemic level understandings of sexual violence, we recognize that this information could be triggering to those who have experienced sexual violence; please proceed with caution if this content may be difficult to process.

Reflect: How do we implicitly perpetuate sexual violence?

The systemic power of sexual violence is undergirded by a complex web of erasure and silence,1 embedded in power relations around gender and sexuality.2 This silence is particularly prevalent in higher education because those who are considered to be successful are given a pass for problematic behavior.3,4 For example, following sexual harassment allegations against a Harvard anthropologist, 38 prominent Harvard professors signed an open letter defending his character and status as a scholar.5 While many later retracted their signature for not knowing the “impact” it would have on their students, this case shows how prevalent the culture of silence – or silencing – is in higher education. How can we begin to deconstruct our tendency to unquestioningly defend someone versus believing survivors?

Learn: Sexual Assault and Harassment in STEM

Sexual violence – including assault, stalking, and harassment – is incredibly common in STEM.6, 7, 8 Additionally, STEM fields have a higher rate of underreporting than other fields.9 Faculty and staff also have high rates of non-reporting, as a result of feeling like they may not be taken seriously or that nothing would happen.10 Graduate students are in a unique position regarding sexual violence, as their precarious position in the university is exploited by others.11, 12 Some research suggests that women in STEM departments/field with gains in gender equity experience more sexual victimization, indicating a backlash effect by men in those fields.13 Sexual harassment and violence can have many detrimental effects. Women who are targeted by these behaviors aspire less to STEM careers,14 do worse academically,15 have higher turnover as faculty,16 and poor mental, emotional, and other personal outcomes.17 The prevalence and outcomes of sexual violence in higher education can be further intensified for people at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, particularly Black women.18


  • Discussion questions: Here are some questions that can help us be aware of the effects of sexual violence. How do we talk about sexual violence in our day to day? If you were approached by someone saying they were assaulted, how would you respond? What would you do if someone said something disparaging in response? How often do you hear people disparage those who have been sexually assaulted and how often do you step in? What kind of culture are we creating in our professional and personal space where people can feel safe and free to share their stories?
  • Combat DARVO: DARVO, “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” is an acronym which describes the pattern of behavior where survivors are silenced and discredited. Coined by Dr. Jennifer Freyd,19 DARVO commonly occurs when people are confronted about sexual violence or harassment – about themselves or a peer. Exposure to DARVO causes people to believe that victims are less credible and more responsible, while the perpetrator is considered innocent; however, when you become aware of DARVO, exposure to this kind of narrative can help lend further credibility to the person targeted by sexual violence.20 Many sexual violence support services offer lessons to teach us how to interrupt DARVO and victim blaming, such as the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. Take time to learn how to identify and address these narratives in all parts of your life.
  • Be proactive in addressing the relationship between sexual violence and oppression: As sexual violence is an exercise of power under cisheteropatriarchy, it is important to be proactive about addressing these oppressions. Particularly in STEM fields where masculine norms of dominance are common, host regular conversations about the effects of gendered oppression on how we interact with each other and inequities in our daily lives (e.g., the wage gap). These conversations can become spaces where people can learn to identify these issues and address them in their personal lives. Additionally, create regular systems of review around common policies, such as parental leave, and practices, such as academic “housework”, to ensure that they are creating equitable outcomes. Beginning these processes can help create an environment that counteracts factors contributing to sexual violence.

Weekly Resource Recommendations