Women and Whisper Networks: Anti-GBV Activism on College Campuses and Online

Sarah Banet-Weiser 0:02
ICA presents. A content warning before we get started: this episode contains mentions of sexual violence.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 0:21
Hello, and welcome to Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture, a podcast brought to you by the International Communication Association Podcast Network. My name is Sarah Banet-Weiser and I am a joint professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Over the course of this podcast series, we've been looking at conjunctures, defined broadly as contingent moments of social crisis. And particularly, we've been looking at our current conjuncture to think about what this crisis means for feminism and the possibilities for social change. Today, my guest, Carrie Rentschler and Emily Colpitts, and I discuss gender based violence on college campuses and whether current institutional solutions are enough to enact real change. We also explore whisper networks and the rising market for anti-sexual violence technologies and if they blame or protect victims.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 1:17
Hi, everyone, I am so honored and thrilled to have two amazing, smart, brilliant feminists here on the show. Professor Carrie Rentschler, who is a professor at McGill University in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies. And she's also an associate member of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist studies, also at McGill. She's the author of the book, Second Wounds: Victims Rights and the Media and the co-editor of Girlhood and the Politics of Place. She also has a huge role in student activism, which we'll be talking about today. So welcome, Carrie.

Carrie Rentschler 1:52
Thank you.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 1:53
And we also are super happy to have Emily Colpitts here with us. Emily is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill. And she holds a PhD in Gender, Feminist and Women's Studies from York University. She's currently working on a book that critically examines contemporary anti violence efforts at Canadian universities and mechanisms of institutional change, which we will also be talking about today. So welcome, Emily. Today, we are going to be talking about different sorts of efforts, practices and activism about gendered violence, we're going to be thinking about it in broad terms, some of it we'll talk about in terms of activism at the university level, and lots of our listeners are academics. So this I think will be really relevant to them. But we're also going to be talking about the kind of intersection of technology and sexual violence and gendered violence and the role that technology plays in the current conjuncture, I want to first start with Emily and ask you, Emily to share with us some of your work, especially in terms of campus politics, and campus activism. Since I know you've done a lot of that, and you're working on that right now, what do you think it looks like at this particular moment when we have these divergent discourses of coming forward of being believed, of not being believed, of campus rape culture, and so on?

Emily Colpitts 3:19
Thank you, Sarah. I would say that at this conjuncture campus, sexual violence is not a new phenomenon. We know that at least in Canada, the rates of prevalence have remained fairly steady over the last four decades. And at the same time, we are in this moment where there is unprecedented pressure on the university to respond to violence. And I think that pressure comes from ongoing student activism, heightened public attention, media, as well as some changes in legislation in Canada. So I've been really interested in labor of eradicating violence on campus that is performed largely by those who are already marginalized within the institution and by student activists. I think what's really interesting is that we see sexual violence being sort of on one hand, a threat to the reputation of the institution. But on the other hand, we've started to see that I think with this sort of spotlight on the issue of universities, responses to sexual violence have become a way in which the university's performance is measured. So for example, in Canada, Maclean's magazine publishes this annual ranking of Canadian universities that I remember as a teenager buying to try to figure out which universities to apply to, and it's certainly used by a lot of families in that way. They added a measure a few years ago, around prevention. All of this incentivizes the university to develop this response as a way of sort of demonstrating publicly that they care about students safety. And so we see this tension between wanting the problem to go away, but also having to respond in a way that contributes to responses that are very visible, easily measured and quantified. And so that lends itself to things like heightened security measures on campus. Of course, we know that these things don't necessarily make folks more safe. Particularly racialized students have expressed concerns that heightened security on campus is going to make them fundamentally less safe. I think, too, about the way that we see consent modules being developed on campus. So taking consent education, which is already a popular approach to prevention and turning it into an hour-long module. But of course, a one hour module is really limited in terms of actually addressing the roots of violence.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 5:31
I'm really happy that you mentioned something about this sort of connection between sexual violence on college campuses and reputation management and how that becomes something that cynically you could say that when a university starts paying attention to widespread sexual violence on campus, or rape culture on campus, it's because they've been exposed in the New York Times, and so need to quickly put out a fire. I don't want to be overly pessimistic about these measures. But I also think that there's a way in which this is a sort of bureaucratic solution for something that is decidedly not bureaucratic. And I think that this also speaks to this ill fit between the realities of sexual violence, the realities of rape culture, the realities of being constructed in gender terms in this culture, and what that means in terms of safety in terms of threat in terms of surveillance — a module can't get at that, right? I mean, sexual violence, like you said, has remained pretty steady across all these years, when all these different kinds of things are put into place. So maybe, Carrie, I'll turn to you about this, because I think one of the things that you have also theorized so brilliantly is this ill fit between the realities of rape culture, and the sort of inadequacies of the legal system. And so, formal justice systems aren't designed to help women in terms of sexual violence. So there are informal justice systems that kind of emerge, especially within a media context. So maybe if you could talk a little bit about your work in that area.

Carrie Rentschler 7:07
And this builds so nicely on what Emily was saying, because universities are really interesting spaces, they're spaces of experimentation, around social change. You have a lot of people coming into universities who are coming out of social movements, and currently too with all of the hiring around sexual violence response, in particular, you are drawing people who are coming from movement contexts, and moving into the institutional context of universities. And yet, universities are these really interesting spaces, especially around I think sexual violence response, because they're not criminal justice organizations. So yes, I totally agree. Universities are financial entities, they need to make money, and they have to promote themselves in a marketplace for students. And so the fact that when we see rankings for universities now in Canada and elsewhere, where we actually get information on reported cases of sexual violence and those sorts of things, we see how much these responses are feeding into that kind of promotional set of needs and frameworks that folks have. This is not new. I mean, this is not a new thing. I'm always struck by you know, I started university in 1989. And so much of the campus context right now feels deeply familiar to me, I feel like I'm in the same debates I was in when I was 19. This is something that has always interest me is these kind of longer histories of feminist response to gender violence and other forms of violence as well. The creation of feminist counter publics, the creation of feminist alternative media, the ways in which things like whisper networks have been around for decades and decades — these are the ways in which folks have been organizing to share information, to share practices for how to respond to things like gender violence. And so the pieces I've been looking at most recently, I think, are how we see whisperer networks taking shape in places online. I'm just struck by the recursive forms of response and feminist response and organizing that we're seeing today because some of it seems so familiar, even though there are new sort of infrastructures that folks are working with and within and for me, it's been really interesting to start tracing some of the ways in which people have been organizing in relationship to them. And so a lot of movements like Hollaback! started as a website, right. It was a group of friends building a website, using that as a model that then spread to other places as well. That was really modeling responses to sexual harassment, primarily street harassment, and using mapping technology to begin to share stories of street harassment that you could then actually locate and say this happened here. It's an alternative model of it that feminists have created but it looks very similar to the kind of crime mapping that happens that ends up saying these locations where folks have reported being street harassed are dangerous locations in the city. But without much of a critical framework on how that feeds into certain deeply racist notions of safe and dangerous places and cities, the ways in which those very models for mapping where that happens can lead to increased policing, for instance, of particular neighborhoods as well and the harms that come with that. So I was kind of mapping that out with Hollaback! and some others, because I'm really interested in how does bystander response get modelled as a social change vision for feminists right now. I find it interesting because it's often trying to navigate around criminal justice systems because of the failures of those systems. But sometimes that kind of criminal justice framework is still not just lurking there, but also being reenacted in some ways. And I've seen that with their app, you know, and the ways in which it models witnessing in those very deeply, very deeply racist, often quite carceral frameworks of response.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 11:07
Again, as both of you are talking, I'm just trying to think if I'm just super grumpy all the time about this, which is probably very true. But it's just exhausting to do this work, it is exhausting to feel unsafe all the time. So my grumpy side is angry, that different technological solutions to a — or are at least addressing the problem of rape culture, the problem with street harassment, or sexual assault culture — puts the onus back on the victim to mitigate her own crime, right. And so many of these technological solutions, or Emily, the kinds of activism, also that you're talking about on campus, for good reason, they're about prevention, but they're not actually about change. So one of the things that I have been working on is this sort of emerging marketplace for anti sexual violence technologies, and the ways in which so many of these technologies work in a capitalist logic and a carceral logic. And I'm thinking there's a product out there that you can put a certain nail polish on your nails. And so you dip it in a drink when you're at a club or at a bar. And if it changes color, it means that you've been roofied. Right? Again, my grumpy part of me is that this is neoliberal solutions to what is fundamentally a historical and trans national issue about the sort of material realities of what it means to be a woman in a context of racism, misogyny, and sexism. And so don't worry, I'm not going to ask the two of you to come up with the solution for this during this podcast, although if you have the solution, please feel free to offer it to us. But I'm constantly searching for something that actually addresses the structure of sexual violence, the structure of rape culture, and whether or not you have a come across in your work of some things that you think work more effectively than others.

Carrie Rentschler 13:03
There's actually not that much training going on around the relationships between norms of masculinity and the ways in which men learn to become men and the ways that they're encouraged to become men happening on campus when we know that that's such a key source of the problem of gender violence, what is it about actually addressing the sources of violence that seems so dangerous to institutions? Right seems so unappealing, because they get I think some of the very fundamental investments that so many parts of universities and other institutions still have is they don't want to ask those questions. They don't want to reveal the structures of male violence, a lot of which is enacted against other men and boys as well, to not address that, even though we know this is a huge problem. So for me, it's that I think all of these imaginations of these bizarre contraptions and chemicals we can put on our nails to check our drinks continue to avoid the sources of how gender violence is actually being produced and actually being inactive. So many of our models are reproducing these troubling, like stranger danger paradigms. Again, we know most cases of gender violence, sexual violence, especially sexual violence are between people who know each other. So all these models still presume, primarily, that folks don't know each other, that violence is happening in context where people don't know each other.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 14:26
You're absolutely right about the models being completely insufficient seems like an insufficient word because it's so much deeper than that. They're based not on actually material realities of both sexual violence and sexual desire. I mean, Carrie, your comment about how this is going on for a long time. We still haven't figured out after all these years, how to address it. And we haven't figured out how to have a conversation that just says, states bluntly, clearly, patriarchy hurts men. Anyway, Emily, I don't know if you wanted to talk about some of that stuff that you're doing in terms of masculinity.

Emily Colpitts 15:02
So I looked at this a couple of years ago at a few different programs on Canadian campuses, because I realized when I did a scan of university sexual violence policies in the province of Ontario that none of them explicitly named masculinities, as contributing to violence or men as perpetrators, even when they did explicitly name that women were disproportionately victimized. And so I thought that was really interesting. And so I think there are a lot of complexities around engaging men on campus. And I think there are a number of reasons why universities may avoid this type of work, I think trying to avoid backlash is perhaps one of the reasons why they avoid these more politicized anti violence efforts. But there is a program that was created by a community based sexual violence center in London, Ontario, called Anova. And it's called the Man|Made program. And it brings together male students who have violated the university sexual violence policy with men who also volunteer to participate for co curricular credit. And it's just a four week program, as far as I understand, and there are different components, things around by standing and consent, but also it moves toward taking accountability, understanding what that looks like, toward the end of the program. And I think that there is some potential for change there. I think that moving these conversations away from sort of simple one on one consent and bystander content toward conversations about understanding how we're all implicated in this issue, and toward a taking accountability, I think is important. Yeah, at some of these roots,

Sarah Banet-Weiser 16:38
I think you're absolutely right. That's something that actually takes as its core goal or core logic, the changing of gender norms across the board so that we can approach these issues not in these very familiar binary categories of victim/perpetrator. One of the things that I think has been part of the issue that you both have just brilliantly talked about is that the models that we have, they don't make room for ambivalence. Just to be clear, I don't think there's anything ambivalent about sexual violence. But I think the ways in which women are using these technologies, how we are creating whisper networks, how we are creating different ways in which we can feel safe in a feminist network in a community, as a collective, is really, really important. And so we take these models and try to figure out how to work with them in this ambivalent space. Rather than say, either they don't work or they do work. We should wrap up. So maybe some parting thoughts, Carrie?

Carrie Rentschler 17:38
I've been working on this for so many years, Sarah, and people have asked, like, how can you keep working on these topics? And I say, because I study how people make change. And I'm always, not only impressed, but just moved by the work that people do to make change and the work they do to redefine what justice is. And I know we're all in this group here doing that work. And to me, that just gives me continued energy and hope.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:09
Over the years. One of the things you've taught me so many things, but one of the things that you really have taught me is, and it's hard to teach me, this is patience. I'm a very impatient person. And I want things to happen right now. And they don't always happen right now. And it doesn't mean you lose faith. It doesn't mean you give up. So I appreciate that. Emily, do you have some final thoughts?

Emily Colpitts 18:32
Yeah, I think coming back to Kerry's earlier point about Whispernet works for me and someone who is involved in community based anti violence, organizing, that's where this work really happens. I think that's where this work will continue to happen. And so finding ways to support that work, I think, is really what's most important for me at the end of the day.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:53
Great. Thank you. And thank you both so much. I mean, neither review makes me grumpy. It's a very hopeful project. Thank you so much for sharing this work with us and for the continued work that you both do.

Carrie Rentschler 19:05
Thank you, Sarah. Thanks for having us. And thanks to all the listeners as well.

Emily Colpitts 19:09
Thank you.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 19:14
Feminist Networks in the Conjuncture is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This podcast series is brought to you by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative communication established as a joint effort between the schools of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. Our producer is Lucia Barnum and Kate In. Our production consultant is Nick song. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero. The theme music is by Lance Conrad. To learn more about me, my guest today and our podcast series, check out the show notes in the episode description. Thanks so much for listening.

Women and Whisper Networks: Anti-GBV Activism on College Campuses and Online
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