Recently, there has been increased attention to sexual violence on university campuses. Current legislation in Ontario – where I live and work – now requires post-secondary institutions to have sexual violence policies in place. Hoping to contribute to broader discussions about addressing sexual violence on university campuses, my colleagues and I from the Research Facility for Women’s Health and Wellbeing (led by Dr. Paula Barata) at the University of Guelph were interested in learning about university women’s experiences and perceptions of safety on campus.
We decided to use a unique qualitative method called PhotoVoice or Participatory Photography to engage our participants in what we hoped would be a fun and transformative process (our expectations here may have been too high, but more on this later). We also wanted to use women’s voices and the visual power of photos to help foster positive change on our campus. As will become clear, this goal became complicated by our process and results.
PhotoVoice allows participants to share their realities and expertise by taking photos and participating in group discussions. After an initial workshop to introduce our participants (7 first-year university women) to the project, we gave them about a week to take photos of things that could convey their own and other women’s perspectives on women’s safety on campus. Then we held a second workshop where we discussed participants’ photos. Throughout this discussion, we tried to encourage the women to consider different perspectives and whether their safety concerns matched actual risks. This was challenging to balance with our goal of understanding women’s safety concerns independent of the researchers’ influence, while also being mindful of the potential ethical concerns of adding to women’s fears.
The workshop discussion and photos focused heavily on women’s fears of male strangers; alcohol and drugs; and being alone, outside, at night. In other words, our participants’ safety concerns reflected stereotypical notions of sexual assault; namely, that it is perpetrated by strangers outside at night in dark parking lots and alleys. As most feminist researchers know, these concerns do not match where and by whom most women experience sexual assault.
Our findings about women’s primary safety concerns are not necessarily surprising, but they create a challenge for us as feminist researchers since our goal was to use women’s voices to promote a critical understanding of women’s safety and facilitate change on our campus. In our efforts to share our findings we have dealt with this challenge differently, depending on our target audience.
In a written piece that we hope to publish and share with an academic audience, we highlight the ways in which women’s safety concerns interact with and reproduce stereotypical notions of sexual assault, as well as the potential implications of our findings for addressing women’s safety on Canadian university campuses. Our analysis focuses on how stereotypical notions of sexual assault—both what it looks like and what causes it—enabled women’s accounts and shaped their safety concerns. Specifically, women’s safety concerns—which were almost exclusively related to men, strangers, and being alone, outside, at night—reflect common but highly stereotypical ideas of what a typical or “real” rape entails. Though not where and by whom most sexual assaults take place, this is how most people picture sexual assault.
These discussions also suggested that sexual assault is caused by men’s uncontrollable sexual urges, alcohol, and women’s behaviour (such as dancing topless at a party). These reflect common rape myths that blame the victim, that suggest that only certain types of women are sexually assaulted (those who “ask for it” by dancing provocatively), and that absolve the perpetrator.
We show that these stereotyped notions about sexual assault were so strongly held by some of the women that they still went back to these types of accounts despite encouragement by the workshop facilitators to consider acquaintance risk and to question victim blaming. In our academic piece, we used these findings as a way of discussing the complexity and tensions involved in helping women feel safe on campus, while also challenging stereotypical social constructions of sexual assault—especially given the stake that, as neoliberal institutions, universities may have in perpetuating rape culture to maintain a positive public image.
In collaboration with an Art student, we also created a homemade-style magazine (a “zine”) to share with students on and beyond our campus. Because it’s a participatory action research method, PhotoVoice researchers often put their results to action to foster positive change. The zine was our attempt to reach students and raise awareness about women’s safety and sexual assault. It uses the power of our participants’ quotes and photos to highlight the unjustness of women’s persistent fears in situations where men rarely feel afraid or unsafe. It also provides facts on violence against women to help shift risk awareness to acquaintances and ways to work towards improving women’s safety on and beyond our campus. (You can read the zine online here).
In the spirit of PhotoVoice, we tried to get our participants involved in our zine project but, for the most part, they were not interested. Perhaps this was because they were busy first-year students. Or, perhaps the method was not as fun and engaging as we had hoped. Likely, it was at least partly because they did not feel very invested in the project and topic of the study, which is itself telling. Our participants conceptualized sexual assault and women’s safety in the same narrow and stereotypical ways that universities tend to portray and address them. So, it makes sense that they were not as outraged as we were about the unjustness of women’s persistent fears and the lack of effective response from universities.
Ultimately, both our written piece and zine are attempts to disrupt rape culture—which itself can act to silence women and make university campuses feel unsafe—while still doing justice to our participants’ and other women’s fears and concerns.
Addressing both women’s fears and risks is crucial: women must be afforded the same privileges as men in academic settings, as one small step towards gender equality.
The author would also like to acknowledge the following members of the research team: Dr. Paula Barata, Dr. Sara Crann, Sandra Erb, Amy Ellard-Gray, and Katherine McLean.
Nicole Jeffrey is a PhD Candidate in Applied Social Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Her research uses primarily qualitative methods and has focused mainly on issues of men’s violence against women, including sexual and intimate partner violence. Her PhD dissertation will examine men’s experiences perpetrating sexual violence in intimate relationships and the ways in which men talk about sex, dating, and sexual violence with other men.