Reflections on Teaching Sexual Violence Prevention After #MeToo

Scene report by
Victoria L. Dickman-Burnett


In mid-October 2017, I travelled to my soon-to-be-dissertation site. My research partner Maribeth, a veteran English teacher, and I had recently gained the approval to move forward with my dissertation research—a sexual violence prevention unit in two 11th grade English classes. As I travelled, I was disconnected from social media, so I arrived to multiple messages all saying the same thing: check out Facebook and Twitter. The floodgates had opened and survivors were sharing their stories. In the following days, weeks, and months, people, especially women, everywhere would tell stories of abuses by powerful men. Many of these men would fall, facing consequences for the first time. The timing of this news aligned with our sexual violence unit, enhancing the experience for us and our students. This paper presents a narrative exploration of how the project became intertwined with #MeToo while offering insights about sexual violence education in the #MeToo era. In this account, I hope to both convey a snapshot of the experience of teaching high school students about sexual violence as well as share lessons to inform future educational, activist, and scholarly work.

Maribeth and I had not anticipated #MeToo. As a sexual violence researcher, I knew this moment would arise, but I knew in the way a seismologist knows an earthquake will inevitably happen along fault lines. I did not know we would reach the breaking point in the midst of this project. Yet October 2017 happened, and the timeline of #MeToo and our project intertwined. The timing was fortunate: we were discussing the normalization of sexual violence at a time when the idea was becoming more widespread. In January 2018, after several weeks of prominent men being exposed as abusers, we met with parents to discuss the program. A few days before the meeting, The Washington Post ran a story on #MeTooK12  (Strauss, 2018), an offshoot of the movement focusing on the way K-12 schools contribute to the culture of sexual violence. A week later, Larry Nassar would be sentenced up to 175 years in prison (Cacciola, 2018).

Our six-week project involved exploring sexual violence in an interdisciplinary high school English unit. Using the young adult novel The Mockingbirds (Whitney, 2010), we invited students to think, write, talk, and make art critically interrogating the ways society normalizes sexual violence. Students learned definitions of sexual violence. They took photographs examining rape myths. They made art for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. They developed action plans to address the subject of sexual violence in their school and community. The news became a conduit to dialogue with students and shaped how the unit progressed. Though the learning objectives had been planned in advance of #MeToo, the conversation aligned well with the discussions happening in the news. I have included a table showing our learning objectives in relation to the #MeToo conversation. At first, we believed the parallels to be coincidental, though six months of hindsight suggests our research was tapping into a necessary conversation—the timing was the only coincidence.

Comparison Table of Program Learning Objectives and #MeToo Conversation
Unit Learning Objective #MeToo Conversation
Understanding Definitions of Sexual Violence Increased conversation about what sexual violence is; spotlighting inappropriate behavior typically not characterized as sexual violence
Helping a Friend Who Discloses Increased conversations about how to support survivors; increased visibility of resources for survivors
Understanding the Aftermath of Sexual Violence Conversations about why survivors do not report; conversations about trauma
Understanding Affirmative Consent Conversations about what does and does not constitute consent; focus on abuses of power and power differentials and their impact on consent
Understanding the Normalization of Sexual Violence Conversations about why sexual violence is systemic; conversations about power structures and abuses of power; increased awareness of the ways abuses of power are presented to be “the norm”

#MeToo was not the first time sexual violence had entered the public discourse in recent years, but for the first time in my decade of research and activism, I saw the popular understanding of sexual violence begin to include a conversation about the ways sexual violence is normalized by ordinary people.[1] This idea is also not new, but in 2017 it crossed the threshold from niche feminist thought to a more-widely accepted notion. This idea had been at the center of our planned unit, so seeing it gain widespread traction gave a wealth of examples when leading classroom discussions.

As students engaged with the program, #MeToo entered the classroom discussion and assignments. Several students took photographs related to Larry Nassar and Michigan State University as a discussion related to sexual violence. A few art projects featured #MeToo emblazoned in teal (the color of Sexual Assault Awareness Month; see fig. 1).

An image showing a student-made collage with the words #MeToo, "Sexual assault awareness month", "help" pasted with images of a hand over a woman's mouth, a woman crying, and an image showing a man and a woman close together.
Figure 1. Mackenzie’s #MeToo Collage represents sexual violence as physically and metaphorically silencing.[2]
The national conversation provided more than examples to discuss: it offered a framework for students to understand the concepts in real time. At the end of the unit, students demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of sexual violence and eloquently informed school officials of the value of what they learned. For example, one young man with a fondness for aviation critiqued the way pin-up girls painted on planes objectified women. Another male student found a particularly graphic American Apparel advertisement, while a third brought in an example of a blocky Lego figurine painted to have an hourglass figure to denote femininity (see fig. 2). He discussed how unnecessary sexualization in a children’s toy sends messages about gender roles to young children.

Lego figurine with long brown hair wearing a white pantsuit that is cinched in to show hips and cleavage
Figure 2. Joey’s picture of a Lego figurine represents the ways women’s bodies are unnecessarily sexualized, in this case, for small children.

Efforts at the school will continue to expand, and many of our students are interested in continuing the work they did in the classroom to become part of the solution. Eight young women are currently partnering with us in a student action research group to address school climate toward sexual violence outside of the classroom. We have begun to outline projects based upon the action steps students identified in the unit.

Lessons learned

Throughout the process of teaching the unit and being responsive to student needs in light of the national conversation, we learned a number of lessons, outlined here for educators and activists educating youth about sexual violence (and other difficult subjects). Though not exhaustive, these lessons are essential considerations for taking into account the ways #MeToo has shaped the discourse surrounding sexual violence.

Encourage Students to Take Time Away From the Material

Talking about sexual violence for an extended period of time will wear on students regardless of what is happening, but when students see it in the news on an almost daily basis, the weight of the discussion intensifies. We found encouraging students to be mindful of their emotional health and take time away from the work of the unit was not enough; we needed to demonstrate what this meant. To do this, one day toward the end of the unit, we had a frank discussion with students about how the current climate was hard for us too and talked about what we did to take care of ourselves, such as taking time to do activities we enjoyed as a break from difficult discussions. We gave the students the day to rest and led them in guided breathing exercises while playing quiet music. In light of #MeToo, student survivors, who may be in any class, unbeknownst to educators, may also need some time to rest even in classes where difficult discussions are not taking place. Educators should consider the weight of the news on their students and give students a day of rest during particularly difficult news cycles.

Pay attention to cultural backlash

Just as students are hearing about sexual violence due to its increased presence in the news, they are also likely experiencing backlash firsthand. Several students noted that they heard peers and parents talking about “women who lie to get famous” when #MeToo was discussed. Being attuned to backlash creates teaching opportunities and prevents students from potentially internalizing harmful narratives. Backlash illustrates the ways society normalizes sexual violence and blames victims, and helping students understand this is crucial for their growth in the program. In our discussions, we talked about the role backlash played in continuing the normalization of sexual violence and offered students concrete suggestions to help them respond to backlash, such as statistics on the high prevalence of sexual violence or the low rates of false accusations.

Be aware of gatekeepers to resources

Perhaps the most surprising lesson we learned from the students was that many felt they could not access resources within the school because gatekeepers stand in the way. For example, to see a guidance counselor, they must convince the receptionist they have a pressing need to do so. Unfortunately, students noted, the guidance receptionists typically send students away without paying attention to whether the student is in distress. This is one way that institutions may be contributing to the normalization of sexual violence through unintentionally silencing victims. Gatekeepers prioritizing order and assuming students are avoiding work can lead students to decide to not bother seeking out resources. Implicit in the assumption students are up to no good are assumptions that survivors act in one particular way. Adults in roles involving restricting access to resources need training to recognize distress to make sure students needing resources can access them, but they also should make a good faith attempt to respond to students with kindness regardless of whether signs of distress are present. Educators should also advocate for students and respond to this kind of thinking when they see it emerge among their colleagues. Specifically, educators can challenge assumptions about students’ motives and remind their colleagues that survivors are often a hidden population.

Students are coming of age in this era, and they have different needs for prevention education

Our students were more knowledgeable about sexual violence than we had anticipated, due in large part to social media and the rise of #MeToo. This does not mean they do not need to be educated about sexual violence, but the educational approach needs to take their existing knowledge into account. Conversations about what students already know present a potential starting point to correct mistaken impressions and expand upon existing knowledge. Our students demonstrated that they already understand safety and risk reduction, as those matters have been emphasized extensively from a young age. Instead, these students were ready to discuss higher-order concepts like understanding affirmative consent and the cultural normalization of sexual violence. A more informed body of students offers potential for greater educational impact.  Furthermore, we should root our educational approaches in trust in our students. Such an approach means students are part of the solution to undoing rape culture. We should trust their voices and experiences rather than taking a “liability management” approach as is frequently found in sexual violence education programs.

As I write this essay in late September of 2018, the president’s Supreme Court nominee has been confirmed by the Senate, despite being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. In response to her coming forward to bravely tell her story, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has received multiple death threats. The discourse about sexual violence has involved downplaying the accusations, excusing them because they took place in the past, or accusing Dr. Ford of lying. Even with the progress made by the #MeToo movement, backlash has led to debates as to whether attempted rape should be considered a crime. The deeply ingrained beliefs about sexual violence leading to abuses #MeToo brought to light are still ever present, and the fight continues. As we continue the work of educating youth about sexual violence, not every educational moment will align as closely as it did in early 2018, but #MeToo will forever shift how we approach education about sexual violence. We must allow this to shape future violence prevention efforts.

Endnotes

[1] And 2017 was not the first time “Me Too” was used to discuss sexual violence. This piece would be incomplete if I did not recognize Tarana Burke and the over a decade of work she has done for survivors of color. A footnote is not much of an acknowledgement, but given space constraints, it is all I can offer at this time. return
[2] All student names are pseudonyms. return

References

Cacciola, Scott. (2018, January 28). Mather v. Larry Nassar sentencing: “I just signed your death warrant.” New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/sports/larry-nassar-sentencing.html.

Strauss, Valerie. (2018, January 3). #MeTooK12: A new hashtag for students sexually assaulted or harassed in K12 schools. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/01/03/metook12-a-new-hashtag-for-students-sexually-assaulted-or-harassed-in-k-12-schools/?utm_term=.04c5771f3dcc.

Whitney, Daisy. (2010). The Mockingbirds. NY, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Author Bio

Victoria L. Dickman-Burnett (she/her/hers) is a PhD candidate in Education and Community-Based Action Research at the University of Cincinnati. Her research explores interdisciplinary approaches to sexual violence prevention in secondary school settings, with a particular focus on using literature to educate students about sexual violence. She blogs and tweets infrequently at victoriahyphen.tumblr.com and @victoriahyphen, respectively.