The Curse of Knowledge in Sexual Violence Prevention

Last week I was at the AFA/ASCA Title IX Institute. As a result of the sessions from great presenters I attended and conversation I had outside sessions, I’ve been reflecting on how the curse of knowledge can get in the way of sexual violence prevention. The curse of knowledge is that once you know something it is hard to remember what it is like to not know that thing – which makes it hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know. During the institute I got to spend time with really smart people who spend a significant portion of their time thinking about preventing sexual violence in complicated, nuanced, conceptual and theoretical based, and research informed ways. These conversations are certainly engaging and rewarding for me. However, I kept thinking about how some of the nuanced conversations folks were having and making the case for would land with our intended audience – often a 17 year old new college student.

This all has me thinking about how scholars’ complicated and nuanced examinations are important, but we can’t lose sight of the perspective of the learners (in all of their different identities and life experiences) as we apply them. We also have to keep in mind that they aren’t really college students – they are essentially high school students who just arrived at college. It’s also important to be awre that many of them have received poor, little, or no education about healthy human sexuality before arriving at college. We also need to be clear that the number one source (by far) of sexual education is pornography (and there are some messed-up, rape supportive messages there to be sure). Given these contexts, are we providing them the pedagogical approach that will best reach them or are we providing them the approach that is most interesting and engaging for us to discuss?

I’ve long worried about the language behind the really awesome and important concept of bystander intervention. Does a new college student hear the word “bystander” and just think about someone standing by and not doing anything – like a bystander to a crime? That’s not what we are talking about or encouraging. If we use “bystander intervention” perhaps that is better, but does that just conjure up the image of intervening when sexual violence is eminent? If so, then those opportunities are exceedingly rare given the nature of sexual violence. Plus, we need bystanders at the cultural roots of sexual violence.

During his session, Aaron Boe, pointed out that when we use the word “consent” (another key concept in sexual violence prevention) what does that conjure up for new college students? Does it remind them of consent forms, where they forged their parent’s signature to waive legal liability before a field trip? That’s not really what we want them thinking about either.

Similar challenges come up when we talk about alcohol’s role in complicating and nullifying consent, which can be heard as supporting victim blaming.

Are we focused on what we are saying (teacher focused) or on what they are hearing (learner focused)?



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