Tips for Advocacy at Universities

Tips for Advocacy at Universities

Are you frustrated with responses to sexual assault and relationship abuse at your university? Want to take action? If so, this resource, created by a Stanford graduate and previous Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness intern, is for you.

Your compassion and resolve to take action are important first steps. Read on for five additional steps that will help you drive sustained positive impact:

Step 1: Learn about the dynamics of sexual assault and relationship abuse

  • Take time to learn about the causes of sexual assault and relationship abuse—hint: it’s not alcohol or testosterone, but rather, our sexist systems that encourage use of power & control. For more information, visit:
  • Don’t leave out relationship abuse—make sure to include “relationship abuse” in the title of task forces, committees, or student groups working in this area. The dynamics of sexual assault overlap with, but also differ from, the dynamics of relationship abuse. Sexual assault can occur within an abusive relationship, and when it does happen in that context, we need to respond differently than when sexual assault happens separately from relationship abuse.
  • Learn how to put the survivor first. Abuse and assault take choice away from the survivor; our systems should seek to restore that choice to the survivor, or else we risk re-victimization. For more information, visit:

Step 2: Learn the history of activism at your school

  • In all likelihood, you are not the first person to take action at your school. Do some research to learn:
    • What actions your university has taken in the past
    • Who else has been involved in pushing for change
  • Your goal here is to learn what problems have been addressed and eradicated at your university. Examples of long-term change will help give you hope and resolve as you do the difficult work to make things better.
  • Sexual assault and relationship abuse impact university life at many levels. Consider where your university stands today and look for gaps in the following areas:
    Direct services for survivors:

    • Does your university provide counseling by counselors that have received an 8-16-hour training on the dynamics of relationship abuse and/or sexual assault and how to respond? This training should meet the standards set by the Office on Violence Against Women.
    • Will your university make alternative housing or academic arrangements as needed for survivors?
    • Does your university have a website or confidential hotline that survivors can use to find the options available to them?

    First responders in law enforcement:

    • Have law enforcement professionals on your campus received 8-16 hours of training on the dynamics of relationship abuse & sexual assault and how to respond? This training should meet the standards set by the Office on Violence Against Women.

    Medical Staff:

    • Have medical personnel received training on the dynamics of relationship abuse & sexual assault? This training should meet the standards set by the Office on Violence Against Women.

    Adjudication:

    • What is the process that your university uses to adjudicate cases of sexual assault and relationship abuse?
    • Have panelists and investigators (or the relevant equivalent) received 8-16 hours of training on the dynamics of sexual assault and relationship abuse and how to respond? This training should meet the standards set by the Office on Violence Against Women.
    • What standard of proof is used at your university? (“Preponderance of evidence” is the standard recommended by the U.S. federal government.)
    • What are the recommended sanctions (sentencing) for perpetrators of sexual assault and relationship abuse? How do those sanctions compare to the recommended sentencing for people who cheat on exams? How often is the recommended sanction enforced with perpetrators found responsible for assault or abuse?

    Residential Staff:

    • Have residential staff members received best practices training on relationship abuse and sexual assault as recommended by the Office on Violence Against Women?

    Students:

    • Have students received best practices training on the dynamics of sexual assault and relationship abuse and how to avoid victim-blaming? Are they trained in how to be an active bystander? These trainings should meet the standards set by Office on Violence Against Women.
    • Are students made aware of campus resources for survivors of relationship abuse and sexual assault?

    University Management of these topics:

    • Does your university have an office of sexual assault and relationship abuse to consolidate all of these activities? Does the director have enough clout within the university to recommend changes in the practices of other departments, including the Title IX office?
    • Does your university have a Title IX office to ensure compliance with federal regulations with regard to keeping students safe?
    • Does your university clearly state who is a mandated reporter of sexual assault/relationship abuse and who is not? This information allows survivors to decide who to go to depending on whether they feel safe with information about their case being reported.

    Monitoring Campus Culture:

    • Does your university run a survey to assess how safe students feel on campus and the prevalence of sexual assault and relationship abuse?
    • Does the campus survey avoid creating inaccurate statistics by failing to control for context by inadvertently (i.e. not defining the difference between self-defense and perpetration) within the questions about relationship abuse or sexual assault?
    • If data is available: Have the number of reported assault and abuse cases increased over time, to reflect an increase in reporting, reflecting greater confidence in university management of these issues? Over time, how has the punishment of perpetrators changed?
  • Resources for training on relationship abuse and sexual assault:
  • For more recommendations for universities, please visit:
    • The university section of our website.
    • Not Alone, a website supported by the U.S. federal government that provides guidance for universities.
      • Note: Overall, this website is good. However, their free survey instrument does not control for context when asking about intimate partner violence. On page 19 of this document, there is a question about Intimate Partner Violence that reads as follows: Since the beginning of the current academic year in [FILL: August/September], [YEAR], has an intimate partner… (a) threatened to hurt you and you thought you might really get hurt? YES/NO (b) pushed, grabbed, or shook you? YES/NO (c) hit you, kicked you, slapped you, or beat you up? YES/NO.
      • This question is problematic because it does not account for acts of self-defense. For example: If a perpetrator of relationship abuse repeatedly threatened their partner verbally and then backed them into a corner, their partner might respond “yes” to part (a). If the survivor of abuse then responded by pushing the perpetrator away in order to escape, the perpetrator may also respond “yes” to part (b). As a result, the people coding the survey would report that both individuals are perpetrators, when in fact only one individual was using abusive and coercive behaviors to maintain power and control over the other partner.
      • Thus, a better way to phrase this question is: Since the beginning of the current academic year in [FILL: August/September], [YEAR], has an intimate partner… (a) threatened to hurt you and you thought you might really get hurt? YES/NO (b) pushed, grabbed, or shook you in an attempt to intimidate/control you? YES/NO (c) hit you, kicked you, slapped you, or beat you up in an attempt to intimidate/control you? ? YES/NO.

Step 3: Recognize what your university has done well

  • Recognize that university policies and administrators are balancing many interests and stakeholders. There are times when apparent inaction occurs in order to accommodate the wishes of the survivor. This perspective might help us be compassionate with the challenges universities face behind the scenes.
  • University administrators will also be more receptive to your recommendations if you acknowledge the good work that they have done and start with the assumption that they are well-intentioned. Your goal is to educate them on how to act on those good intentions in a better way.
  • We are still suggesting that you protest, call out mistakes, and highlight the changes that need to be enacted; however, if you do so in a strategic way, you will ultimately be able to drive more change.

Step 4: Look for a team to build a movement

  • University culture is difficult to change. That’s why it’s important to work in a team, so that you can support each other and build more momentum for change.
  • Student activism has contributed a great deal to change. However, we’ve also seen throughout history that the on-campus activism can fade away when students graduate. To ensure long-term change, connect with long-term university staff who can continue the efforts and drive change from within the university.
  • Refer to your list of people who have taken action at your university on this issue and reach out to them. Learn about the challenges they have faced previously, the actions they are taking today, and the remaining barriers and possible solutions that they see.
  • If you see gaps in the work being done today, don’t immediately start your own thing. Seek to engage current activists and build broader support from the university community.

Step 5: Make informed recommendations

  • Now that you understand the dynamics of sexual assault and relationship abuse, know about what your university has done already, and are acting as part of a team of concerned community members, you are ready to make recommendations.
  • Identify the gaps that you see in university actions today. Be specific in your requests. Vague requests are easy to misinterpret and ignore. Consider the following examples:
    • Vague request: The university needs to train staff on relationship abuse and sexual assault.
    • Specific request: Residence deans, counselors, and first responders should receive 8 hours of training on the dynamics of relationship abuse and sexual assault and how to respond. Resident Advisors should receive 3 hours of training. Fraternities should receive 1.5 hours of training. These trainings should follow the standards outlined by the Office on Violence Against Women and should include how to avoid victim-blaming.
    • Vague request: Change the curriculum for incoming students.
    • Specific request: Ensure the curriculum for incoming students follows the best practices set by the Office on Violence Against Women and follows the recommendation that alcohol prevention shouldn’t be at the same time as sexual assault and relationship abuse.
    • When you are thinking about policies to recommend, remember that sometimes certain cases are kept anonymous to respect the privacy of the survivor. Leave survivors with the option to request and maintain anonymity.
  • Make sure to use the backfire test to ensure that your recommendations improve survivor safety and don’t put the survivor at risk. To do the backfire test, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Does this policy serve the survivor who wants to take judicial action against the perpetrator?
    • Does this policy serve the survivor who does not want to take judicial action against the perpetrator, but just wants to request access to counseling or safety resources?
    • Does this policy force the university to pursue judicial action against a perpetrator against the will of the survivor? This should not be the case—a university can meet the “quick and effective response” standard required of it by law by offering sufficient resources/options to the survivor in the form of written notification. “Protecting the community” should include the survivor. The university must consider whether the community is actually safer when proper sanctions are not implemented (i.e. when the perpetrator only gets community service).
  • Next, think about the best way to bring about the changes you hope to see. As part of this, think about the university system and what is blocking change today. Choose a direction that allows you to address that barrier. Avenues for action include:
    • Working with the student or faculty senate to create a resolution.
    • Creating an open letter to the head of the university and getting it signed by students and alumni.
    • Creating a public petition.
  • Double-check your recommendations before you act. This is important! Before you go public with any initiative, make sure to consult with a trained professional who has worked in the field of sexual assault and relationship abuse. This is an important step because we want to be sure that we are doing everything we can to increase survivor safety and not decrease it. Experienced professionals can identify unanticipated counter-effects.
  • Finally, don’t lose sight of the bigger goal: To change university culture so that students feel safe from sexual assault and relationship abuse. It’s easy to get attached to your recommendations or your initiative, but the important thing is that you help to drive change, whether or not it was “your” idea.