Graduate Student Experiences of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (SVSH)

Featured Scientist: Cierra Raine Sorin (she/her/hers), Ph.D. Candidate (Anticipated: Spring 2022), Department of Sociology with a Doctoral Emphasis in the Department of Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

Pale feminine person with long, wavy purple hair, wearing purple lipstick at an office desk with a fake plant in the background.
Cierra working in her campus office, pre-pandemic!

Birthplace: Loma Linda, California

My Research: My research is intersectional, meaning that I study people’s identities and how those identities impact their lives. I am interested in how having different identities impacts people’s ability to give consent and to have that consent recognized by others. Using qualitative methods, I study how people understand and react to sexual violence and sexual harassment (SVSH) in their communities, and in the institutions that they belong to. Some of my research questions include:

  • How do people understand and give consent?
  • How are people’s individual understanding of consent connected to group norms, such as normal group beliefs that revolve around sexual behavior?
  • How do these group norms make sexual violence acceptable, so it keeps happening?
  • What do people do when they have experienced sexual violence in their community or institution, like the workplace or in school?

Research Goals: My research focuses on sexual consent. I want to know how consent violations happen in institutional settings and what we need to know about these settings to protect people’s consent. For example, sexual harassment is one type of sexual violence that is common in workplaces, even though it is illegal. My goal is to understand how and why people experience discrimination in the institutional settings that are supposed to help and protect them.

Career Goals: My work has always revolved around solving social problems. While I love being in academia, it is very important to me to do work that benefits society. I see myself in a professor position where I can pursue research and teaching to improve the world around me. Another dream of mine is to write social justice-oriented children’s books, with my partner as the illustrator!

Hobbies: My hobbies include spoiling my German Shepherd pup, Lilith, swimming and doing yoga, watching bad crime television shows, like CSI, and playing action RPG video games with my partner!

Favorite Thing About Science: I love that in science, there really is something for everyone. Anyone with curiosity and interest in how the world around us works can become a scientist! As a social scientist, I study people and how they interact and co-exist. This may seem very different from someone who studies atoms, oil spills, or butterfly migration patterns, but there are many similarities in that the end goal is to gain a better understanding of how to make the world a better place.

My Team: This paper is the result of an amazing collaboration with several other researchers from a larger team project called UC Speaks Up, which took place across three University of California campuses: UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), UC San Diego (UCSD), and UC Los Angeles (UCLA). Our team of faculty members, graduate students, undergraduate students, and research staff collectively designed and carried out multiple kinds of qualitative data collection. Here, I discuss the data we collected from graduate students participating in focus group discussions (FGDs) and in-depth interviews (IDIs). As a graduate student intern on the project, I oversaw the UCSB undergraduate student researchers and acted as a liaison with the larger team based at UCSD. I also conducted all of the IDIs with UCSB graduate students and led both of the FGDs. During this time, I became good friends with another graduate student intern, Brittnie Bloom. Having similar research interests, we decided we wanted to analyze the experiences of graduate students in our data set. Working with our research advisors, Dr. Laury Oaks (UCSB) and Dr. Jennifer Wagman (UCLA), we have written three papers that speak to the different experiences graduate students have with SVSH and campus resources. In this paper, I took on the role of second author and Brittnie took the role as the first author. While Brittnie led the writing process, the formatting, and the submission, we worked closely together to make decisions, analyze the data, and write the paper.

Field of Study: Sociology

What is Sociology? Sociology is the study of social life and human behavior. We are interested in the relationship between individuals and the social environments they exist in. This includes their groups, institutions, and societies more broadly. Sociologists study a variety of social issues, and many connect to forms of inequality.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Employees, Advisees, and Emerging Scholars: A Qualitative Analysis of Graduate Students’ Roles and Experiences of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment on College Campuses”

Citation: Brittnie Bloom, Cierra Raine Sorin, Jennifer Wagman, and Laury Oaks. 2021. “Employees, Advisees, and Emerging Scholars: A Qualitative Analysis of Graduate Students’ Roles and Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment on College Campuses.” Sexuality and Culture, (doi: 10.1007/s12119-021-09841-w).

Research At A Glance: It is very important to understand SVSH experiences among graduate students. SVSH includes, but is not limited to, stalking, sexual harassment, and invasion of sexual privacy. SVSH is common on college and university campuses but research in this area rarely focuses on graduate students. This is an important gap in campus SVSH studies because graduate students take on many roles for the university. They engage in teaching and mentoring students and in conducting research with faculty. In many of these roles, graduate students face unequal power roles that can make them vulnerable to sexual violence. We wanted to better understand the experiences of SVSH of graduate students on all three University of California (UC) campuses: UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), UC San Diego (UCSD), and UC Los Angeles (UCLA). To do so, we conducted 21 IDIs and 8 FGDs with a diverse group of 43 graduate students, between 23 and 34 years of age. The study consisted of Masters students, PhDW students, and professional students. Participants were mostly heterosexual and 32% identified as LGBTQ+. Of our UC graduate student participants, 41% identified as white, 25% as Asian, 16% as Hispanic/Latino, 6% as Black and 10% as more than one race or ethnicity.  Our research was part of a larger study, but our focus was on the experiences of graduate students. Some of our questions included student knowledge of and perception of SVSH. Additionally, we asked graduate students their opinions about SVSH prevention and the role that they play in reporting and responding to sexual violence. We wanted to see how graduate students understand SVSH, how they work in an environment where they may be faced with unequal power roles, and how to prevent SVSH. We also wanted to raise awareness to situations where these students may be vulnerable or more likely to experience sexual violence.

Highlights: SVSH is a continuing problem on college and university campuses. Students in disciplines that historically lack diverse faculty are at a higher risk of SVSH. Until recently, most research on SVSH has focused on students that identify as white. These studies have also not been intersectional, where students have more than one identity. Our study highlights the importance of race and ethnicity in SVSH work. The stories that we heard from students emphasize that SVSH work is also diversity work. SVSH needs to be more culturally informed because students from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to experience SVSH. The same is true for sexual orientation. People who identify as gay or lesbian are more likely to experience SVSH than those who identify as heterosexual. Transgender individuals and bisexual individuals are the most likely to experience sexual violence. The students who participated in our study were able to share unique experiences that spoke to these issues. One Latinx student spoke about some of her cultural norms which involve greeting people by kissing. She explained that she was uncomfortable when Latinx faculty engaged in that behavior in academic settings but wasn’t sure about how to respond when it took place. Understanding that certain behaviors have a cultural context is important for teaching and learning consent. We need to recognize and respect the unique experiences of all people in our academic communities and support survivors to prevent SVSH.

What My Science Looks Like: In our study, we identified three themes, detailed below.

  1. Graduate students do not trust university reporting and aid processes because they feel that reporting SVSH can negatively impact them.
  2. Graduate students don’t know about the rates of SVSH on campus or if they are at risk of experiencing SVSH.
  3. Graduate students remain silent about SVSH because of power hierarchies that exist among faculty members, such as professors or mentors.
Themes identified in our study of SVSH experiences among UC graduate students

The Big Picture: Most people who complete a graduate degree are in school for many years. Depending on the environment, graduate students might experience abuse of power by faculty. This can make them more vulnerable to sexual violence. Reporting violence can also have a negative impact on students. Some students experience bullying or lawsuits. Many don’t feel safe reporting their experiences because they may not stay anonymous. It’s a huge risk. Some graduate students have such bad experiences that they choose to or are forced to leave academia altogether. No one should be forced to make the decision between their personal safety and their career. Universities are trying to prevent and respond to sexual violence. One way has been to change group norms about sexuality and consent. However, most of these efforts overlook graduate students. This is a problem because graduate students and undergraduate students have different roles at the university. Interventions that work for undergraduate students may not work well for graduate students. Universities can better support graduate student populations by listening to their experiences. In our paper, we present ideas and solutions that can make the university a safer place for everyone. We suggest recruiting people from different backgrounds to participate in making SVSH policies. We also suggest holding university leaders accountable for any policies, procedures, or practices that protect perpetrators and harm survivors. This includes calling out bad behavior and making sure that faculty engaging in inappropriate behavior are removed from their positions.

Decoding the Language:

Culturally informed: Culturally informed practices are those that recognize that we all belong to different cultures with potentially different group norms and take that into consideration when developing prevention and response efforts. Accounting for these differences is important in reaching most people effectively.

Diversity work: Diversity work refers to the efforts made in an institution or organization to make the environment and group norms more supportive of people from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Group norms: Group norms are the rules for behavior in a particular group. For example, this can be the way you are expected to dress, how you speak, when and what you eat, and so on.

Institutions: Institutions are formal social structures that include governments, universities, churches, and workplaces. They exist beyond the individuals that take part in them but provide group norms and expectations for how people should live and behave.

Intersectional: Doing intersectional work means examining the different social and political identities that people occupy to understand how they experience privilege and/or discrimination. Common categories of intersectional analysis include race and/or ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, social class, and age, but there are many others!

Qualitative methods: Qualitative methods are types of research methods. Information is collected through observations or through interviews. In our study, we used in-depth interviews (IDIs), where we talked with graduate students one-on-one, and focus group discussions (FGDs) where we did group-style interviews with multiple graduate students at the same time.

Sexual violence and sexual harassment (SVSH):  Sexual violence and harassment is any activity, attempted or completed, where one (or more) person uses violence, coercion, force, or drugs to control another to engage in a sexualized activity. Sexual violence is usually not about sex itself, but about someone using power to harm someone else. Sexual violence includes incest, rape, sexual assault, stalking, sexual harassment, and more.

Learn More:

To learn more about the UC Speaks Up project, including some of the other efforts of the group and its members, you can check out our website!

To learn more about intersectionality, I recommend this short Vox interview of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, thirty years after she coined the term.

Synopsis edited by Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, Illinois State University, and Titilayo Omotade, PhD, Yale University, Yale School of Medicine.

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