An interview with Nicole Bedera, a sociologist studying how sexual violence is much bigger than the people involved in a sexual assault. Her work focuses on how social structures, organisations and culture create a world where violence is predictable and normalised. Bedera is the co-founder of Beyond Compliance, an expert-led consultancy that helps organisations intervene on sexual violence by creating cultures of safety. She is also an Affiliated Educator with the Center for Institutional Courage.
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
My interview with Nicole Bedera was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. We instantly clicked and could have kept talking for hours!
Bedera's insights into sexual violence and the way in which institutions shape experiences of violence and harm have informed my own thinking and reflection on how to achieve genuine cultural change. Universities continue to fail their students and staff by dismissing concerns of violence and harm on campus and ignoring the experiences of many who they don't see as worthy of their time (particularly students of colour, LGBTQIA+ students and students with disability). In many instances, universities are institutions that elicit white supremacist ideology in how they approach sexual violence and related harms. Universities and academia more generally are inherently patriarchal institutions that protect and favour power for white, privileged people. Bedera was the first person I spoke to on my travels to specify how white supremacy plays out in university systems. This made me think about how the concept of intersectionality is thrown around by university administrators as one of their ‘core values’, while they fail to proactively acknowledge privilege on campus and how this plays out in sexual violence cases – the most basic step to actually being intersectional.
I was also struck by how Bedera approaches her advocacy work. She is explicit in calling out how universities continue to ignore intimate partner violence (IPV, also known as 'domestic violence'), which can lead to students being murdered or dying by suicide. Failing to address sexual violence and related harms (such as IPV) in an intersectional and all-encompassing way is like treating all victim-survivors as a monolith – it is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Universities also fail to acknowledge the varying forms of violence between different student and staff groups, with there being a particular lack of focus on sexual harassment and violence by staff (usually senior faculty) towards graduate students. The harassment and exploitation of graduate students is often ignored as many initiatives on campus tend to focus on first-year undergraduate students only. This is a complete failure to safeguard the student population from harm or acknowledge the abuse being perpetrated by those in power.
This is why the most essential need across the USA and Australia to prevent campus sexual violence is to stop allowing institutions to self-govern their violence prevention and response practices. Government intervention has been called for across both jurisdictions but has been largely unsuccessful due to the extreme power and privilege that university institutions and their leaders wield in government and society. But such intervention and oversight is possible – for example, government intervention into violence in the USA military has resulted in independent oversight of sexual violence cases (which previously were managed internally).
How Universities Shape Sexual Violence Through Power and Control
Through Bedera's research, she has collected a wealth of real-life, current examples of how universities have shaped the experiences of victim-survivors of sexual violence through exerting power and control.
Victim Advocates and Title IX Investigators
Victim advocates are prevented by universities from advocating for individual victim-survivors or systemic issues, as they are threatened with being fired or are fired for not conforming to the status quo. This leads to a large turnover of staff which has detrimental impacts on victim-survivors seeking assistance through these services. It also leads to university leaders ‘cherrypicking’ people they know, or people already within the university institution, to be Title IX investigators and victim advocates. For example, many prosecutors are employed in Title IX roles at universities, which leads them to adopt a more punitive and criminal approach despite the process being a civil one.
Administrators of universities often say that they would be better at addressing sexual violence, “if only they had the money to do it”. However, it appears that in practice, universities have the money but do not allocate these funds to the parts of the universities responsible for addressing sexual violence. Victim advocates at many institutions earn around $30,000 per year and have a budget of $3000 per year to support victim-survivors. At the same institution, a university sport coach can be on a salary of $11 million dollars per year.
Let that sink in.
Universities decide not to appropriately resource sexual violence support services on campus. With this in mind, how do we expect victim advocates to be able to provide trauma-informed, intersectional, responsive and safe services when they can barely survive on their salary?
Students’ awareness of institutional policies and procedures is often lacking for a variety of reasons. Bedera has spoken with student activists who have called on their university to adopt an affirmative consent policy, when in fact the university already had one. The problem was not the existence of the policy, but how university staff were not following it or making it publicly available to staff and students. This example is just one of many instances of universities claiming to respond to external pressure through policy development, but having no actual intention to change the way their system works. Universities develop policies with little to no consultation, so they can check off a compliance activity without actually implementing it.
Why are we operating on the assumption that universities are going to follow what the policy says? Bedera reflected that she wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people who are roadblocks to student activists trying to make change are later accused of sexual assault or harassment within the next ten years. They aren't just contributing to the problem, they are the problem.
Perpetrator Interventions and White Privilege
There is a racist presumption that perpetrators are so bad to the bone that the only solution is mass incarceration. The reality is that perpetrators are normal people around us. However then when these ‘normal’ people are accused of sexual violence, many deny this as possible or try and make excuses for their behaviour. This is particularly stark for white men – as we have this desire to maintain the innocence of white men but then demonise men of colour. In coming to a point of understanding, we need to realise that these people perpetrating sexual violence are not idiots who ‘didn’t realise what they were doing was wrong’, but they are also not evil monsters lurking in the shadows waiting someone to walk by and rape them. These people, usually men, are committing violence to their peers because society has told them that this is okay and that they have the right to exert their power onto someone else and retain privilege within society. For these reasons, Bedera spoke about how restorative justice is now used by universities as a way to keep (usually white) perpetrators from being held accountable. This only reinforces universities as places where white men learn how to break the law without consequences.
Restorative justice in its intended form in Black and Indigenous communities is very effective. However, universities pick and choose the elements of restorative justice that suit their needs and implement it in a way that is not restorative or safe for victim-survivors to engage in. This is why Bedera is pro-expulsion of perpetrators. She explains this is because expulsion is an avenue within a university's control to clearly exert their no-tolerance stance. While it won't teach the perpetrator a lesson or reform their behaviour, it can keep the victim-survivor safe and send a clear message of support. The high appetite for institutional risk by protecting perpetrators and upholding the status quo (often because people in power have perpetrated forms of violence themselves) entrenches white privilege and power.
Bedera’s experiences mirror an experience I had at the residential hall I lived at in 2018. Perpetrators continued to remain on campus and in their college environment after being reported for sexual violence. Staff refused to act without any ‘proof’ of the violence occurring, putting victim-survivors in danger. However, the second that a student threatened or abused a staff member they were instantly removed from the residential hall. This exact scenario happened when I lived on campus where a serial perpetrator continued to torment one of his neighbours, threatening to rape and kill her. Despite the many reports to move him out of the hall, nothing happened until he threatened a staff member. He was then removed the following day with no questions asked. While it is never okay for anyone to experience threats, violence or abuse, this example draws out the ways in which certain people and their experiences are taken more seriously than others. The problem here is that this person was allowed to continue committing violence against their peers despite the clear pattern of abuse that was being reported.
Lack of trust
University services claim to be confidential but in many cases fail to be truly confidential in practice. For example, universities create specific credit card charges for accessing sexual or mental health services, meaning it is immediately visible and recorded in a victim-survivors bank history. For students who may be financially supported by their parents, or who share access to bank or credit card history information, this is an immediate breach of confidentiality. This breaks down trust for many students to access essential services, particularly for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and international students.
Mandatory reporting policies are also very common in university settings and are used as a way to monitor students and control student leaders to police their peers. However the extent to which mandatory reporting is enforced is unnecessary and leads to a further breakdown in trust, leading many students to suffer in silence.
Activism in Action
Bedera reflected on how these institutional barriers have forced activists to do AMAZING work outside of these institutions. As time goes on, it is becoming more and more difficult for students and staff to be activists from the inside and to effectively call for change through more traditional activist methods (such as protesting). This is because the threats of retaliation against them, combined with the increasing cost of living, makes it extremely difficult for people to engage out of fear for their livelihood. In saying this, there are still examples of effective campus activism in our history – almost always led by women. For example, the campus activism in the USA in the 1980s is a form of community care activism – coming together to call for action on sexual violence. This activism is what led to the establishment of organisations like the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan and the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota in the 80’s, whereas we still don’t have similar units like this at most Australian universities.
I asked Bedera about any advice she had for me as an activist in combatting the institutional barrier of not being perceived as a legitimate stakeholder in the prevention of sexual violence by universities. She wisely said:
“You’re not going to convince your oppressor to stop oppressing you and give you more privilege – it’s a relic of white feminism in [that] ‘they should be grateful we are doing something about it’.”
We are gaslit as a society by powerful institutions that control the narrative claiming it is “difficult to combat sexual violence” and how “there is only so much they can do”. But Bedera speaks about how the solution to sexual violence is right in front of us in sociological research. Specifically, Bedera has explored sociological research that depicts examples of societies over time where sexual violence has not been tolerated and is not the norm. This is particularly prevalent in anti-oppressive, Indigenous communities without the interference of extreme violence from colonial powers. To get to this point, we need to break down assumptions of sexual assault – such as stranger danger – and start addressing patriarchal privilege that fuels our violent society.
Many people don't perceive victim-survivors to be good enough or credible on their own. So instead they seek to find the ‘truth’ by dragging them through rigorous, traumatising processes if they choose to report. As a result, many victim-survivors decide to paint the most palatable picture of what happened to them rather than conveying how terrible their experience truly was, in order to keep themselves safe.
So, what should we do about this?
We need to proactively acknowledge white privilege and white supremacy within our institutions, and then do the work embed intersectionality into all solutions that address campus sexual violence.
We need to build an external organisation with oversight of universities. Universities can't be trusted to self-govern as they haven't proven they are willing to do the work required.
We need to harness the energy of people on the right side of history, particularly those within the institution, to work together to enact change.
Want to learn more from Bedera? Her dissertation titled, Settling for Less: How Organizations Shape the Experience of College Sexual Assault, is available to read online. I am so honoured to have spent time with Bedera to learn from her as a leading expert in preventing campus sexual violence.
References / Learn more: