Interview About University Practices

2013 Interview with Nicole Baran, Founder of the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness

What was your inspiration behind starting the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness: Education and Action? Your approach centers on education, and we are wondering if you view this as being the most sustainable means for change?

Every effort to end relationship abuse and sexual assault, from effective resource allocation to service delivery, can be linked back to comprehensive education. Without it, we will continue to be forced to merely respond to the crisis, after it is too late. With education, we can encourage the public and people in power to allocate more funds to the immediate crisis, so that shelters do not have to turn women away. With education, we can train the professionals who respond to survivors to both increase safety and hold perpetrators (those who choose to do harm) accountable, which is relevant to prevention and cost-reduction. With education, we can teach our boys how to be active bystanders who will intervene if their friends choose to control and hurt their partners; we can teach our children to equally value women and men so that no one chooses to sexually assault in the first place. Education is key because we need as many people as possible to recognize the power they have to make change in ending this horrible human rights tragedy. I specifically started the Center with the goal of creating a leadership program for Stanford students to get involved; my thought was that Stanford is a leader in research, innovation and social progress; why can’t it be a leader in ending violence against women as well? My goal was to be part of the solution to institutionalize a response at Stanford and engage the next generation of leaders to integrate policies that address gender violence in any profession they choose.

You were instrumental in the founding of the Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) office on campus. What are the weaknesses in Stanford’s approach to relationship abuse?

There is definitely room for improvement at any university. Universities often don’t understand the dynamics—that the survivor experiences an ongoing threat from the perpetrator or retaliation, and that she may have very valid fears about moving forward with a charge. One of the biggest challenges is to help administrators prioritize holding the perpetrator accountable while ensuring the survivor’s safety. As much as possible, survivors should be provided with confidentiality in order to increase their safety and access resources without fear of repercussion. Universities are often afraid of reputation and liability—however, if they want to avoid negative media around violence against women on campus, they should allocate enough funds to prevent, rather than just respond to, sexual assault and relationship abuse. Thankfully, Stanford is working towards these goals right now–which doesn’t mean the work is done. In order to broaden the safety net, with limited resources, Universities need a full team of comprehensively trained professionals, so that they can educate students to seek help or become active bystanders; empower administrators to hold perpetrators accountable; and advise students—all of which will reduce liability. And that means mandatory training—not just of crisis staff—but at multiple levels of the university, conducted by people who have expertise in these subject areas. Perpetrator accountability and accessible, comprehensive, education are the most important factors for any university seeking to address these issues.

How can we move from awareness raising and advocacy to action that leads to tangible results and real change?

I encourage everyone, from parents teaching kids, friends talking to each other, or guys in the locker room, to stand up against sexism, because sexism makes women objects—and by making them objects, men will continue to see them as objects to rape or beat—and we can stop that. The majority of men do not choose to rape, control or hurt women, which means that it is not inevitable. To brainstorm some of the smaller, everyday actions you can take to be a part of the movement, the Center’s Tell Us How You Take Action page has a bunch of cool ideas.

There seems to be a stigma surrounding the discussion of sexual abuse, sexual violence and relationship abuse. How can we increase discussion about gender violence both as a college and international issue? Do you think we should link relationship and sexual violence on campus to the global issue of violence against women?

Education is imperative to counter the myths that lead to the victim-blaming and self-blame that impede honest discussion of men’s violence against women and gender violence. Reframing language is necessary to increase the likelihood that survivors will come forward without shame and that people will hold their peers accountable for choosing to perpetrate violence or abuse. Most perpetrators of sexual assault or relationship abuse have a friend or family member who would declare that this behavior is not possible by their loved one; this is partly informed by the misconception that “normal” guys don’t do this and interrupts the important step of a community taking action to intervene. Addressing sexual assault and relationship abuse on college campuses is 100% related to global issues of sexual violence against women and the goal of gender equality. Recognizing that there isn’t a segment of society that is immune to this atrocity is a first step; universities and colleges in the United States have a role to play in both exposing the prevalence of gender violence on campus and taking leadership to effectively address it both through research and response. In addition, challenging the media to accurately report on sexual violence, relationship abuse and stalking is essential to changing the culture that perpetuates these gendered crimes.

What can Stanford students do on campus in order to improve the climate surrounding sexual assault on campus?

It is always helpful for students to be leaders of initiatives to ensure that there is mandatory training for a wide range of populations such as fraternities, sororities and freshmen, as well as programming advertised to the greater community, including graduate students. Students should collaborate with the SARA office to provide trained facilitators at these events. When addressing violence against women, universities often neglect to focus on relationship abuse; tending to address laws that specify sexual violence. It is important for the community to respond comprehensively to gender violence and analyze the ways sexual violence and relationship abuse intersect. Because of the high occurrence of sexual assault as a control tactic of people who choose to perpetrate dating violence, it is important that relationship abuse awareness is always part of the conversation. In addition, examining the intersection of sexual violence with other oppressions is key to effectively working towards ending gender violence; students who are involved with a variety of human rights initiatives are encouraged to bring this topic to the forefront.