On September 18, the New York Times posted an op-ed by plant scientist Hope Jaharen. She studies plants, she tells us, despite the fact that her first scientific love was geology. But she ended her career in rocks after an experience during a field excursion in graduate school. While she was in the Aegean region of Turkey, “a stranger pulled me into a stairwell—and then did some other things. Perhaps an hour later I staggered out with his blood under my fingernails. I cannot describe what happened in a way you will understand, because I still do not understand it myself.” Jaharen’s story is haunting—if not because of how she recounts this sexual violation, then because of its familiarity. She maintains that she knows “several women with stories like me,” but that “more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues.” This reality supports the accusation in the title of Jaharen’s piece, “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem.” This is not only a personal tragedy, but also an indictment of the sexual violence intertwined with the community and practice of science itself.

During the 1980s, dialogue surrounding sexual violence began to recognize that most sexual assault is perpetrated by people known to the victim. This was the decade when the medical community adopted the term “domestic violence” as a clinical term. The phrase suggested a new picture of sexual violence: not, as we’d thought, perpetrated by the stranger in the shadows, but instead by those closest to us. As we recognized the overwhelming intimacy of sexual violence, the picture grew more disturbing. The home—far from being a safe haven from the dangers of the outside world—was instead the site of the most egregious violence.

But Jaharen’s piece points to a different kind of intimacy, to a new place where the brutal reality of sexual violence is perpetuated and even supported. After reading her story, we cannot help but ask: should we hold the scientific community responsible for the sexual violence in its midst? And more broadly: is any community—whether bound together by common interest, practice, or worldview—at fault for the violations perpetrated by its members?

These are hard questions. But as we continue to confront the insidious nature of sexual violence—by which it seeps into our workplaces, churches, and schools—we also move towards new ways of naming and preventing sexual and gender-based violence. This violence is not only domestic, but also rooted in the “communal,” in the “intellectual,” and in the “workplace.” Take, for instance, a recent example: Columbia undergrad Emma Sulkowicz and her widely publicized protest against sexual violence. For her much-discussed senior thesis project, Sulkowicz has sworn to carry a dorm mattress (identical to the one on which she was assaulted) around campus with her until the university expels her assailant. Sulkowicz’s project is not only an accusation. Her project is a protest, both against Columbia and against the university community that Sulkowicz believes should have protected her, and not her assailant.

 

Once we begin to understand how embedded and entangled sexual violence is in all types of communities, we realize that there is no place outside of, beyond, or away from sexual violence.

 

Of course these issues are not only found in the sciences or in universities. Over the past several decades, faith communities have persistently made headlines as a major source of, and support for, sexual and gender-based violence. These stories feel particularly tragic because they fly in the face of what is supposed to tie these communities together. Perhaps reading Jaharen’s accusations of the scientific community is so painful because, in our most ideal moments, we had thought of scientific communities as joined together in the pursuit of truth. We’d thought of religious communities as brought together by a desire for justice and compassion. The reality of sexual violence cruelly shatters these lofty ideals.

We could choose to see this merely as proof of the inherent hypocrisy of science or religion. But this response is immobilizing, leaving no recourse for action in scientific or religious communities—or anywhere else. Once we begin to understand how embedded and entangled sexual violence is in all types of communities, we realize that there is no place outside of, beyond, or away from sexual violence. So where do we go from here?

One possible answer to this question involves external regulation and accountability when it comes to sexual violence within relatively closed communities. But another involves those communities themselves in working towards accountability and justice. Such strategy, however, requires we significantly increase our own knowledge of how communities—whether devoted to science or faith—confront sexual and gender-based violence.

Building on a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors conducted in partnership with Sojourners Magazine, IMA World Health and Harvard Divinity School’s Science, Religion, and Culture program have recently initiated a project aimed at expanding our understanding of how religious communities grapple with sexual and gender-based violence, and at providing us with the tools for combating it. The project will expand the initial survey beyond its original sample size and Christian context, underscoring not only pervasive nature of sexual violence but also its effect on individuals of all faith traditions. It will add to this work by producing a set of resources and guidelines for religious leaders’ use in situations of danger and uncertainty.

 

Integral to any alleviation of violence, then, is not only a vigorous dismantling of structures of power and of domination, but also a shift in how we all discuss the effects of these structures.

 

At the project’s kick-off event, activists and leaders of engaged faith communities spoke to the necessity of a drastic change in the way religious groups confront sexual and gender-based violence. HDS professor Cheryl Giles highlighted the structures of power that persist throughout society—whether in sports, religion, or academia. But she acknowledges that fighting this violence requires more than a simple awareness of power. Giles noted that “most victims of sexual and gender-based violence are stigmatized and blamed for the violence they experienced.” The secrecy that results from being so stigmatized functions as the bedrock of continued abuse, supporting a reality in which we do not know the true extent of the violence (much of which remains unreported).

Similarly, activist Mary Setterholm spoke of the pain inflicted by the ways in which society discusses sexual and gender-based violence. Integral to any alleviation of violence, then, is not only a vigorous dismantling of structures of power and of domination, but also a shift in how we all discuss the effects of these structures. Each speaker stressed that, despite so often acting as the sites of controversy over sexual and gender-based violence, religious communities must work to foster an environment responsive to the pain this violence inflicts. IMA World Health and SRC see their joint project as a way to achieve these goals, and to involve religious communities in their realization.

Perhaps our conclusions will resonate with the campaign recently launched by the White House against sexual assault. In this video, Barack Obama (along with a few Hollywood notables) tells us that “it’s on us” to stop sexual assault. They implore the audience to see that “It’s on us—ALL of us” to stop sexual assault. We hope that this campaign, and projects like this one from IMA World Health and SRC will help more of “us” to see that the source of sexual violence is not a mysterious stranger, not from outside. If communities take collective responsibility, perhaps things could finally begin to change. Perhaps one day people everywhere will be able to go to the lab or to class, to the church or temple or mosque, to their dorm rooms or their homes, without fear.


Myrna Perez Sheldon is Editor-in-Chief of Cosmologics and a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University.

Image of chapel from Flickr via James M

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