By Hana Awwad
Sexual empowerment can be a transformative process, both for individuals and for communities. Although sexual violence is about power and control, not sexual desire, our culture sometimes normalizes the former by de-emphasizing the latter. Here’s how sexual empowerment and supporting a positive sexual culture on campus helps address sexual aggression:
- Preventing sexual violence: Sexual empowerment disrupts the cultural camouflage around rape. When mindful decision-making and enthusiastic consent are the norm, deviations from that norm (like sexual pressure and coercion) stand out. Establishing sexual empowerment as the norm helps reduce victim-blaming, early research indicates, which may better enable survivors to report sexual aggression.
- Increasing bystander intervention: Sexual empowerment isolates and denormalizes sexually coercive behaviors. It decreases our societal tolerance for “low-level” disrespect and casual disregard for individuals’ autonomy—behavioral patterns that are precursors to sexual aggression, research shows. When these behaviors are considered aberrant, bystanders are more likely to spot them and step up early.
- Consuming alcohol more mindfully: Students who feel sexually empowered are more able to act on their sexual desires without resorting to “liquid courage.” Encouraging students to respect their and other’s needs and desires can help decouple sexual desire and alcohol.
- Creating a wider range of choices: When people’s sexual preferences and boundaries are well considered, they feel more confident in their own choices and be more respectful of their peers’ choices. On campus, sexual empowerment supports a culture in which varying sexual and romantic options are recognized and honored. This can mean less slut-shaming, and also inclusion and respect for students who chose not to have sex at all.
4 ways for faculty and administrators
to support sexual empowerment
- Work with students to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality. Peers and communities can model thoughtful decision-making, provide space for reflection, and introduce new ideas and norms. You can encourage dialogue, help fund guest speakers, and incorporate these conversations and concepts into orientation (and other) programming.
- Encourage student leaders who are building a more positive culture. Student leaders are the social engineers who design the environments in which their peers flirt and hookup. By providing them with relevant training and resources, you can help create an environment that is conducive to sexual empowerment and considered choices. Here’s an example.
- Proliferate positive and diverse narratives: Faculty and administrators are well positioned to introduce and facilitate positive narratives of sexual empowerment and mindful decision-making—e.g., when selecting reading material or choosing student speakers for a panel.
- Model empowerment: Students learn from faculty and administrators. Find everyday situations in which you can model polite boundary setting, make non-coercive requests, and affirm other people’s “no”s.
Hana Awwad is a former student affairs fellow at Yale University, where she worked on alcohol harms reduction programming and sexual culture change. Hana worked with Dr. Melanie Boyd and helped manage a diverse group of undergraduates tasked with building a more positive sexual climate. She is based in Toronto.
Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex: The cultural scaffolding of rape. London & New York: Routledge.
Lindgren, K. P., Pantalone, D. W., Lewis, M. A., & George, W. H. (2009). College students’ perceptions about alcohol and consensual sexual behavior: Alcohol leads to sex. Journal of Drug Education, 39(1), 1–21.
Senn, C., Eliasziw, M., & Hobden, K. L. (2015). Efficacy of a sexual assault resistance program for university women. New England Journal of Medicine, 373(14), 1376.