Teaching Sexual Violence in History

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Left, Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Right, Kathleen Gilje, Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998.

Left, Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Right, Kathleen Gilje, Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998.

Sanchia deSouza, Joel Dickau, Edward Dunsworth, William Fysh, Benjamin Lukas, Kari North, Maris Rowe-Mcculloch, Lindsay C. Sidders, Hana Suckstorff, Nathaniel Thomas, Erica Toffoli, and Spirit-Rose Waite

As movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp direct renewed and broadened attention to sexual violence and harassment, many sectors of society (especially workplaces) are being forced to reckon with and critically assess these forms of violence. This cultural shift has been most visible in the entertainment industry, politics, and the service sector, and has manifested in moments of both cacophony (the Women’s March) and whisper (“Sexual Harassment in the Academy” list). It has also illuminated the unequal ways that attention is paid to survivors (and alleged perpetrators) of different economic circumstances, racialized statuses, genders and sexualities, and abilities.

For a new generation of historians, this moment has prompted critical reflection beyond our contemporary workplaces to the object of our studies: the past. How should we, as historians and teachers, grapple with sexual violence in the past – in both our classrooms and our research projects – and how should we assess the intersection between historical inequities and sexual violence in the present?

To this end, a group of graduate students at the University of Toronto recently organized a five-day workshop entitled Teaching Sexual Violence in History. Over more than ten hours of discussion, debate, critique, and negotiation, grounded in secondary and primary historical sources, the group agreed that a radical transformation of how sexual violence is approached in the classroom is essential.[1]

First, we need to recognize that sexual violence cannot be treated as a purely academic subject, no matter how “distantly” in the past. Both students and teachers enter our classrooms with a wide range of identities and personal histories, including lived experiences of sexual violence. To truly create accommodating classrooms, history teachers must not only commit to a rigorous analysis of historical “perpetrators” and “victims” of sexual violence, but also attend to the real effects of teaching historical sexual violence in a classroom full of students who either are or might become perpetrators, victims – or both – of sexual violence.

This is a very tall order that requires a deep commitment to acknowledging the historical exclusions, systemic power dynamics, and economic and institutional barriers that make our classrooms safe and comfortable for certain students to the detriment and discomfort of the historically marginalized (women, racialized persons, the queer community, persons with disabilities, and older persons).

The discipline of history has tended to concern itself with such concepts as “critical distance” and “rational discourse.” One unfortunate result of this is that, very often, the historian teaching episodes of sexual violence pays more attention to their historical subjects than to the vulnerable people (by nature of the classroom dynamic) that sit before them.

Our discussion of the readings and our own classroom experiences revealed that the gap between historical analysis and empathy can be cavernous. Emotions and feelings – those of our subjects (often only accessible by reading “between the lines” or “against the grain”), and most crucially, of our students – must be a source of knowledge going forward

Our discipline needs a reformed vision: history must meet empathy.

History teachers must be assertive in addressing the barriers to teaching sexual violence and in meeting the goal of generating accessible classrooms. Teachers must be sensitive to students’ diverse experiences and yet still investigate the prevalence of sexual violence throughout history with our characteristic disciplinary rigour. We must admit that our traditional pedagogical credo to investigate the past from a “critical distance” has allowed for the further dehumanization of the historical subjects under study who experienced sexual violence. This distanced and dehumanizing treatment can extend to, and adversely affect, our students as the present-day survivors of sexual violence and as those who have inherited under-acknowledged and often unredressed legacies of historical violence. Therefore, we must act resolutely to re-structure the classroom to accommodate students – and instructors – with experiences of trauma.

Some of the barriers to these goals emerge from the structure of our curricula, classrooms, and institutions. For example, instructors (at any level), despite interacting with students on daily basis, typically receive no training that prepares them for dealing with trauma in the classroom, a crucial consideration for handling a topic like sexual violence.[2] This lack of training leaves instructors unprepared for, and potentially in a position to do further harm to, students experiencing trauma in the classroom.

Other barriers are societal: the apparent growth of “men’s rights” and “free speech” advocacy on university campuses—trends that find their way into lecture halls and seminar rooms—pose particular problems for teaching assistants and instructors who are women, racialized, queer, differently abled, or otherwise marginalized.

We need to be open minded but firm in our approaches to dissolving these barriers; the solution to these problems is absolutely not to remove sexual violence or other difficult materials from our courses. On the contrary, this vital subject deserves serious historical analysis. But sexual violence must not be treated as “just another topic.” In too many history courses, sources containing graphic descriptions of sexual violence simply appear in readings with no advance warning given to students, nor advance instruction on how to approach this topic.[3]

When we treat sexual violence as simply an omnipresent “part of history,” it hampers students’ ability to question why these events occurred in specific times and places, including the present. There is a danger of assuming an innate human tendency to commit sexual violence, instead of understanding the phenomenon within its social, cultural, and political contexts. One consistent justification for sexual violence in history is the naturalization of unrestrainable masculine desire, a harmful assumption that occludes the social factors that make sexual violence so prevalent and erases the experiences of men as survivors of sexual violence. By situating sexual violence in its specific historical context, we can begin to see that there is not one overarching biological imperative that excuses this kind of violence. Instead, sexual violence is dependent on societal factors that perpetuate unequal power relations. It is incumbent upon historians to do this work—it is not only about advocacy in our own time; it is also about doing more diligent work to shed light on the lived experiences of historical people.

Attention to the issues outlined above is long overdue. The university is intended to be a place of innovation and community. As historians and members of this community, we need to commit ourselves to finding solutions to the difficulties of teaching sexual violence, and to creating a community that is more inclusive and therefore more creative, original, and inspired.

The authors are graduate students in the Departments of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. The syllabus and expanded bibliography for the workshop can be found here.


[1] We wish to acknowledge the land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

Additionally, this series would not have been possible without the generous support of the Intellectual Community Fund through the Department of History (University of Toronto), the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (CRRS) at Victoria University, and the Graduate History Society in the Department of History (University of Toronto). Special thanks to: Alison Grossman, for help with editing; Kaitlyn Carter, and Zixian Liu, for their engaged participation; to the Department of History Chair, Prof. Nicholas Terpstra, for his very early support of this workshop premise; the patient administrative staff of the Department of History; and the staff of the Innis College Café. Finally, Prof. Lara Putnam at the University of Pittsburgh gave us permission to work with her unpublished conference paper and encouraged this workshop. We thank you.

Different versions of this piece have appeared in U of T’s History Department newsletter, and on the White Ribbon blog.

[2] At the University of Toronto, TAs get four hours of paid training. This training is meant to be cover all aspects of teaching (such as leading tutorials, marking, etc.); however, both the amount of paid training and types of training workshops are limited (at present, there are none that address trauma). The Teaching Assistants’ Training Program (TATP) on campus has a Guide Supporting Students in Distress but it does not address issues of sexual violence specifically.

Additionally, while sexual violence and harassment on and around University campuses is discussed extensively by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the same literature does not exist on handling trauma in the university classroom nor on teaching topics which could trigger trauma.

If confronted with a disclosure or experience of sexual violence at their university or workplace, readers are encouraged to consult resources and services at that institution. At U of T, available supports include: the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre; Health & Well-Being; and CUPE3902’s new sexual violence paid leave, available to Unit 1 (graduate student teaching staff). For Ontario residents, this website contains information about a number of hotlines related to sexual and domestic violence.

[3] If unable to access the link: Corrine C. Bertram and M. Sue Crowley, “Teaching about Sexual Violence in Higher Education: Moving from Concern to Conscious Resistance,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 63-82.

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