The Case for Visibility and Intersectionality in College Student Domestic Violence Survivorhood

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are my own and are not representative of any organization that I am affiliated with.

Content warning: discussions of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, domestic violence.

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During the past five years, media coverage of sexual assault and rape on college campuses nationwide has exploded. Thanks to grassroots student-led movements, such as Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry that Weight” project and “End Rape on Campus,” led by then-students Annie Clark and Andrea Pino (who were also featured in the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground), local campus movements advocating for the rights of survivors and better campus policies have gained momentum. Solidarity within the movement has drastically expanded, and certain schools (such as the University of Michigan) have started primary prevention programs that teach about healthy relationships and consent, with the hope of creating a safer and more respectful culture on campus.

As a fourth-year student at U of M and an advocate for sexual violence prevention, I am amazed every day at what my friends and fellow students have accomplished through ground-up activism: the changes they have been making within school policy, working with various communities through workshops, and changing the general campus climate around sexual misconduct. However, one thing I have noticed through my own work around this issue is the surprising lack of awareness and visibility of intimate partner violence (IPV) in college students and young people as a whole.

It’s worth acknowledging that IPV is an umbrella term in itself; interpersonal violence within intimate relationships – romantic, sexual, or both –  takes many forms. Some of the most commonly reported forms of abuse within intimate relationships include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or any combination. Furthermore, IPV is complex; sometimes it goes unrecognized by family or friends of the survivor or the perpetrator, sometimes the abuse is not constant and is instead cyclical where the perpetrator is loving and respectful at times and then abusive at others, and sometimes the person experiencing IPV does not even recognize it as abuse. The list goes on and on. Factors such as these create barriers and complexities for survivors hoping to seek services.

Sexual assault and rape on campus is an issue that needs to be addressed. However, abusive relationships have not gotten enough visibility in both national and local movements, and I hope to change that through my research. For my undergraduate honors thesis, I am attempting to get a better idea of why IPV in young people has not received as much attention as isolated incidents of sexual assault or rape, and whether or not services on individual campuses that serve survivors are accessible to students who have specifically experienced IPV. Through interviews with college students in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti who have experienced any forms of interpersonal violence or abuse within an intimate relationship (whatever they define that to be), I hope to better understand their experiences with or impressions of services and organizations on their campus and if they perceive them to be accessible or not to them and their specific needs. By speaking with the people directly affected by services’ accessibility, I will gain a more direct perspective. I hope to approach this research from an intersectional lens, and reach out to different communities in order to recruit participants. With the data I collect, I then hope to distribute the data widely to school administrators at the University of Michigan so that services may then make the necessary changes to reach this population.

So what does it mean for a service to be accessible? In the context of IPV, I define accessible to be services, organizations, or people that survivors with varying social identities feel comfortable coming forward and discussing their experiences and seeking help without fear of judgement, exclusion, or any type of microaggressions related to the survivor’s race, gender identity, sexuality, or more. The connection between social identity and intimate partner violence is a crucial one that must always be addressed in sexual violence prevention work, as well as all social justice work in general. Although I cannot speak to others’ identities that I do not hold, students may face different barriers to coming forward and seeking the help that they want if they do not feel that certain services adequately serve people with their identities or have heard negative things about these organizations. The purpose of this study is to learn what schools are doing well and what they are not doing well when addressing IPV in diverse communities and to make change with the research findings to make services more accessible to students who have experienced IPV in the future. Intersectionality and identity politics and their role in sexual violence prevention are important; safety depends on it.

If you or anyone you know would be interested in participating in this confidential research, I am very much interested in speaking with you and hearing about your experiences. I am looking specifically for college or graduate students ages 18-24 who are enrolled in a college or university in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and who have experienced any forms of interpersonal violence or abuse within an intimate relationship. If you are interested, I am recruiting participants all semester. Participation involves a 1-hour interview, and participants will be compensated for their time. I can be reached at kirani@umich.edu or by call/text at 734-892-7211. Participants do not have to use their real name to be part of the study.


Katherine Irani

University of Michigan Honors College and Residential College Class of 2016
Departments of Women’s Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures
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