Understanding Violence Means Looking Beyond the Rapist

A Chat with Dr. Kate Lockwood Harris about Beyond the Rapist: Title IX and Sexual Violence on US Campuses

Kate Lockwood Harris is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Communication at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research on the relationship between violence and communication appears in fifteen different journals and several edited books. Dr. Harris has won accolades from national and international academic societies for her scholarship on institutional responses to sexual assault, and she consults with organizations to develop violence prevention programs.

Emily Winderman is an Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Studies at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the Editor of Citizen Critics’ Healthcare Policy Desk.

Emily Winderman: I am so excited to be here today chatting with my phenomenal colleague, Dr. Kate Lockwood Harris, about her book, Beyond the Rapist: Title IX and Sexual Violence on US Campuses. It’s newly out with Oxford University Press.

I’d love to start with your research on communication, organizations, and violence. What led you to begin researching and writing in this area?

Kate Lockwood Harris: When I was an undergraduate at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, there was some hushed talk about sexual violence happening on campus. Of the 8 women I lived with my first year, 3 had been raped by graduation. Toward the end of college, I connected with people and we started organizing. We did not have much luck. This was before key cases on Title IX had been decided and before federal offices had issued guidance. Reporting didn’t occur in the same way because the policy infrastructure wasn’t there.

Thinking about that, I returned to graduate school at an institution that had a very clear reporting policy. While teaching and conducting research on violence, I had developed a sense for the importance of talking about violence in classrooms and having space for students to share those experiences as part of their learning, theorizing and activism.  I realized that pedagogy would not be possible in the same way with these new reporting requirements. As a teacher, I would be obligated to share some of the information I heard my classroom. I wondered: How do I navigate that? That question was the starting point for this book where I was figuring out how to continue as a teacher and activist given this new context. That kind of question led into a study of reporting and it has evolved several iterations since then.

EW: Your book’s title Beyond the Rapist is both fantastic and complex. Can you tell us a little bit more about this phrase and how it relates to the overall argument of your book?

KH: I picked this phrase to connect the book’s central argument with some of the theory I engage. When I say “beyond the rapist,” I’m thinking about how violence is organized. Violence isn’t only the outcome of an individual action. Certainly, violence does happen when individuals commit certain acts and we should recognize that and hold them accountable. The book isn’t called Ignore the Rapist. In addition to holding individuals accountable for their actions, we can also look carefully at systems, processes, and practices that are all part of what is going on. The idea that rape happens in the midst of a culture that supports it, the idea that we live in rape culture, is grounded in feminist activism and theory. That’s not a new idea. So many feminists, particularly feminists of color, draw links between different types of violence and connect interpersonal violence with state violence. Beyond the Rapist is in conversation with these ideas, and it traces the organizational processes that support rape in higher education.

EW: Right. So it’s not that the human no longer commits acts of violence, but that violence also lives in our structures of reporting such that you might be victimized again not by the perpetrator but by the system that is set up to ostensibly help you.

KH: Yes. Can we expand our thinking beyond a moment of acute violence to those very processes of institutional revictimization—the failures of the processes that are designed to respond to rape but actually replicate abusive dynamics? I would also consider violence before a perpetrator comes into the picture. Can we also expand to think of precursors to that moment of acute violence? Those precursors are also a part of this dynamic. Let’s think of the timeline for violence a little bit more expansively.

How Violence Communicates

EW: Your book encourages us to think about “how violence communicates” rather than focusing on “talk about violence.” You argue that violence communicates through what you name as a “material-discursive processes” insofar as violence “undermines representational modes of communication.” Can you help us understand the limits you see to representing violence?

KH: Research on trauma shows us that people experiencing violence have impacts in their brains and bodies. That actually changes a person’s ability to talk about that violence. Often, there might be hazy details of memory and/or trouble telling a linear story of what happened. These are pretty well documented results of violence. The fields of psychology and trauma studies often argue that violence undermines the ability for people to talk about that violence.

So, if that’s the case, then relying on people talking about violence as evidence that violence exists becomes a real problem, particularly if that’s the only evidence to which an organization will respond. If experiencing violence then makes it hard to talk about that violence—but then you have to talk about that violence for an institution to do anything—there’s a disconnect. On top of that, sometimes even when there is the best available evidence of violence, that also does not persuade an organization to respond effectively.

There are some examples in the book. For one, there was a graduate student who called up the person he assaulted to apologize and acknowledge the assault. That was some of the evidence that the University used in their investigation. That’s direct representation, directly talking about perpetrating violence: “Here’s what I did, I’m sorry.” Even that talk about violence didn’t lead to accountability. The university decided he didn’t violate the student code of conduct. So there’s these two things going on: Experiencing violence makes it challenging to talk about violence, and even when people are talking directly about violence, there is still disbelief, lack of acknowledgement, [and] sometimes individuals and organizations find that evidence unpersuasive.

So, the book is arguing that we are actually awash in a world where violence is constantly screaming at us. And if we can’t find a way to acknowledge that, we are ignoring violence and refusing the education the world is providing. Rather than waiting for Universities to find enough numbers or counts or reports of violence, maybe we can shift the question a little bit. How does violence communicate? Not: “is it happening?” but “how is violence making itself known?” That shift could change responses.

EW: What are some of these processes and entities that you found were capable of communicating violence?

KH: We could look at who is in the most powerful positions. We could look at physical and mental health disparities. We could look at attrition rates. There’s all kinds of evidence of violence that isn’t directly connected to an acute episode of assault. But these things are nonetheless evidence of the inequities that are built into a system that lead to assault.

EW: So if I’m understanding you, we could begin to read for symptoms of violence. University attrition is a really great example. If a person experiences sexual violence and falls behind in their classes they might decide to leave. Rather than just say, “oh well”, your framework encourages us to dig deeper and think about attrition as possibly symptomatic of violence living in the system, knowing that those at the intersections of marginality (gender, race, ability, ect) are likely to experience compounding injustice.

KH: Exactly.

Entangled with Violence

EW: Can you help the Citizen Critics audience understand what this material-discursive process is and what feminist new materialism is?

KH: One of the core ideas from Feminist New Materialism is that the world and what exists in it is not separate from how we talk about the world. These things are interconnected. Karen Barad’s term is intra-action. When we are thinking about violence, often the most recognizable violence is someone punching another in the face, where there is a real physicality to it: bodies, bruises, and concrete evidence of harm. There’s less acknowledgement of the discursive part of violence even though we know it is a part of violence. Intimate partner violence isn’t just physicality but is a system of verbal abuse, financial control, and social isolation. Those kinds of things wouldn’t have sound effects in a movie. You wouldn’t hear thuds. For purposes of this book, what I’m trying to illustrate is the ways we talk about violence and the ways we come to know about it are part of the phenomenon of violence, too.

A lot of the book focuses on a case study of PRU (Public Research University) where I bumped into some challenges studying this issue. I started to think about how the ways universities know about sexual violence are connected to the instances of sexual violence themselves. The way universities are evaluating truth claims and facts about violence, those processes are part and parcel of the violence itself—these things intra-act. We can see this in some of the evidence I found that the folks who were doing the work of reporting were also those who were most marginalized. They were a population already subject to more sexual violence and sexual harassment. It’s the same group of people who are doing the work of reporting, incurring retaliation, and taking the risks that come along with it.

Say you’re a reporter and you’re reporting against someone who assigns your grades or can write letters of recommendation for you, or who will make your tenure decision. There are risks involved in reporting and there’s already extra labor on marginalized and minoritized populations in the University. The book offers many more examples of this but the idea is to think about violence through this Feminist New Materialist lens that refuses to separate out completely the physical world and the discursive world. We have to study violence by also thinking about how we are studying it as part of the violence. Even this book is a part of that same phenomenon of violence.

EW: That’s really important to think about, that this book intra-acts with what we hope will be the reporting procedures. So perhaps folks will read the book and think maybe we need to re-imagine what reporting would look like. That would be the book contributing to the material-discursive weave.

I was particularly intrigued when you discuss the challenges that Title IX presented you as a researcher (page 64). How did the experience navigating what you call “the tangle of factors” associated with doing Title IX research within a fishbowl of being beholden to Title IX yourself influence the framework for your book?

KH: At the time I did the research for this book, I was at a University that had already implemented policies that are now pretty common across the United States. And it became clear that if I was interviewing people about the reporting processes, I would be obligated to report if people talked about episodes of violence in the interviews. I was obligated by the complex communities and systems that uphold research ethics including Institutional Review Board (IRB). I was also bound by Title IX processes at the University to report violence. That presented some real sticky challenges.

I believe that it’s really important to participate in creating the numbers and evidence for universities because that motivates funding and helps build a case that something needs to be done. Also, being a feminist researcher who is reading all the literature on trauma, I was wanting not to participate in a process that could replicate the loss of control that happens in trauma. And I was really invested in not creating extra risk for participants, a norm institutionalized in IRB. Balancing all of that was tricky and took a long time to figure out how to navigate. The process of research I ended up doing is evidence of the challenges of representing violence. The process of doing research became also the thing I was studying. I would have participants in interviews say explicitly: “I know the way not to trigger the reporting process is to not name anyone’s name and not give any details about when or where this happened. So the way we’re going to talk about this is going to be super abstract. It’s not going to sound like we’re talking about violence because I’m not naming names and I’m not providing locations.” I heard that repeatedly in interviews.

The interviewees and I are navigating material-discursive intra-actions as we talk. We didn’t want to trigger the reporting process, but how can we talk about this without making the report be required if that’s not what we wanted to have happen? I left open that if participants wanted me to report, I certainly would. But that’s exactly the thing we were talking about earlier. There is a system in place where talking about violence may not be the best thing for the person or may even be impossible. In order to have the circumstances that a person wants we end up not providing representations of violence that would be evidence of violence. Instead we talk about it in this other way. This is folded into the research process.

EW: It’s helpful to think: If you are studying the representation of violence in that interaction, you as a researcher wouldn’t find much. It would be vague, coded. Once you understand it intra-actionally that it can trigger an institutional process, that representation has to change to potentially prevent that if that’s what the victim wants.

KH: We were talking earlier about how violence communicates. In those interviews, it was rare to have them describe the episode of assault as a play-by-play. But it was pervasive to have conversations about how we navigate the situation guided by Title IX. That’s where violence is communicating.

Rethinking Our Commitments

EW: How did this experience change or further solidify your theoretical and political commitments as a feminist organizational researcher invested in anti-racist work?

KH: Speaking to how it solidified my commitments as a feminist researcher, this dynamic where there is an interest in studying an organizational problem. This challenge is not unique to title IX or sexual violence. Anytime researchers, scholars, or activists interested in shifting what’s happening, there will be challenges in terms of creating the type of evidence persuasive to an institution. Because the institution determines what counts as evidence and is invested in there not being evidence of the problem. In Sara Ahmed’s book On Being Included, this comes up a lot, where naming the problem—whether it’s sexual harassment or racial discrimination—means becoming the problem. As a consequence, it’s almost impossible to produce evidence that is persuasive to the power structure. For me, that made me want to be focused on changing the terms of the conversation.

EW: With current Title IX restructuring proposals by the Department of Education, what would your book’s theory say might be some of the consequences of DeVos’s plan to require cross-examination in accusations of sexual assault? How does this differ from centering focus on the rapist and their crime(s)?

KH: As they amend the guidance on Title IX, some of the proposals are not grounded in the best expert knowledge about what is happening on campuses. The proposal to include cross-examination of people who have experienced violence? There is nothing trauma informed about that proposal. A few years ago, I collaborated with folks at the National Center for Campus Public Safety. I was working alongside psychologists, and police, and student affairs professionals, and a variety of experts thinking on these issues. I left that collaboration so clear that trauma-informed investigation is completely possible and that this expertise exists. There are so many ways to think carefully and rigorously about the facts of a case that don’t require cross-examination. The idea that cross-examination is necessary to have a rigorous process that is not biased, that grants everyone involved their rights? That idea is just bogus.

It also confuses educational processes and criminal processes. Part of the proposal would allow schools to choose their standard of evidence. The standard now is a preponderance of evidence, but the proposal would let schools opt for a higher standard of evidence, the one used in criminal process. But, Title IX is a civil rights issue. For every civil rights violation the standard is a preponderance of evidence. So that part of the proposal creates a serious problem because it means that this one civil rights violation would require a higher standard of proof than any other civil rights violation. There are so many things in that proposal that are ill-informed, particularly, there is no need for cross-examination to ascertain the facts of the case.

EW: In your mind, what can non-university organizations learn from your work? Knowing full well the limitations of human centered understandings of this process, how might you direct readers towards engaging in advocacy and taking action with your insights in mind?

KH: If we’re thinking beyond individuals, the book, like so many activists and theorists, reaffirms the importance of coalition building and action through connections to other people. You can’t always know ahead of time the impact of an action, but it’s important to take it if its informed by connections to other people and if it enacts an intersectional sensibility. Readers wanting to make these connections and build coalitions might consider these sources.

Know Your IX: Empowering Students to Stop Sexual Violence

SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape)

End Rape on Campus

FAR: Faculty Against Rape

The Revolution Starts at Home

WARRIORS: Activate, Educate, Liberate