By: Liz Inman
Content Notice: This post contains information about sexual violence and links to personal stories of sexual violence. This post is not legal advice.
In the United States, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The CDC considers sexual assault to be a type of sexual violence (SV), which is defined as “a sexual act that is committed or attempted by another person without freely given consent of the victim or against someone who is unable to consent or refuse.” An individual may be unable to freely consent to sexual activity for a number of reasons, including incapacitation by alcohol or drugs, being asleep, or experiencing threat of harm. Consent also becomes difficult to navigate when the individuals involved have different levels of social, professional, or legal power.
For graduate students, who are just starting careers in competitive fields and are reliant on the guidance and support of colleagues and mentors, power imbalances may be common. The #MeToo Movement has encouraged thousands of SV survivors to come forward, and this includes graduate students who have revealed their experiences with violence at the hands of their classmates and advisors. Unfortunately, students who experience SV report a range of other outcomes, including worsened mental health, lower GPAs, and lower levels of academic self-efficacy. These consequences can make it feel very difficult to finish a degree.
In the United States, students who attend federally-funded institutions of higher education are protected by several laws. Title IX has protected students from discrimination on the basis of sex since 1972. Historically, this law has been interpreted in ways that protect students from experiencing sex-based discrimination in the form of sexual violence, but these protections were drastically weakend during Betsy Devos’s time as Secretary of Education. It is likely that the Biden administration will rescind these Trump-era policies. Regardless, every institution is required to have a Title IX coordinator, who receives reports of SV. Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to record campus crime statistics, to provide victims with a list of options and resources, and to protect victims against retaliation.
Here at Stony Brook, there are policies prohibiting relationships between supervisors and their subordinates (e.g., between an advisor or PI and their graduate student or RA). There are also policies prohibiting sexual misconduct (e.g., a classmate or labmate sharing sexually explicit jokes or images that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe). The Office of Equity and Access is a central location for reporting discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, or reporting sexual misconduct. For confidential services, students can contact CAPS or CPO on campus, or call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline.
Each and every one of us has the right to pursue our graduate education in an environment that is free from sexual violence.