Study uses research to challenge root problems of rape on campus

Johanna DeBari, a second year master’s student pursuing international studies and human rights, is in the midst of conducting a study about sexual violence, specifically on UConn’s campus. (Courtesy)

One University of Connecticut graduate student is attempting to combat rape culture on campus.

Johanna DeBari, a second year master’s student pursuing international studies and human rights, is in the midst of conducting a study about sexual violence, specifically on UConn’s campus. 

“Really what I’m trying to get at is how people understand sexual violence, or if they understand sexual violence as a threat to their security,” DeBari said. 

The idea for the study, which involves individual interviews lasting between 30-40 minutes and a 15-20 minute post-interview meeting, came about when one of DeBari’s classes addressed the framework of insecurity and security in wartime. DeBari wanted to apply this to a peacetime context. She noticed many parallels between the language of rape culture and that of safety during wartime. 

“I went to ‘Take Back the Night’ last spring, and I just noticed when a lot of students went up to give their testimony, it was the same kind of language that I was hearing,” DeBari said. “It was ‘I don’t feel safe,’ ‘I feel really insecure,’ ‘I don’t want to walk alone at night,’ ‘I don’t want to go to parties by myself.’”

Still, DeBari said she cautioned against generalizing about UConn, due to the study’s small sample size. 

Being a survivor of sexual assault herself, DeBari recognizes that “it’s hard not to have your bias, and I’m being very conscious of that bias.” 

DeBari thinks that her position as a survivor gives her insight that other, more impersonal studies might not have. She also mentioned that no one is looking at college campuses through an intersectional feminist, humanist, security and survivor lens. 

With the study, DeBari hopes to show how rape culture – a decidedly gendered issue, she said – manifests itself in the lives of women and keeps women from reaching their full potential. In doing this, DeBari argues that it is not only the vile actions of sexual violence themselves that create rape culture, but microaggressions as well. 

“I think one of the things that exposing this rape culture does is helps people see the issue on a continuum, in the sense that you have people making jokes about rape, or making sexist jokes, or victim blaming and saying ‘you know, it was probably their fault,’ over here which seem kind of like more benign things because they’re considered microaggressions,” DeBari said.

“And then you have things on this end like rape, murder, battery, things that culminate in physical violence against women,” she said.

At a time when UConn administrators have touted increased reporting in rapes as a greater willingness to come forward and improve survivor services, DeBari wants to get at the problem itself, and is hoping the study, entitled “Inevitable to Preventable,” will be able to help with prevention. 

“I’m trying to introduce taking a survivor centered approach, rather than risk reduction tactics and assuming sexual violence is inevitable, rather than something we can prevent,” DeBari said. “How do we look from the survivor’s perspective, in my study the woman’s perspective, and ask what I can do to live a life of dignity?”

The answer, for DeBari, lies partly in exposing rape culture, which includes the thought that society should arm women. DeBari calls this the “the band-aid solution.” Part of this thinking, in DeBari’s eyes, is how taboo the topic of sex is with the general public. For her, sexual violence can only be talked about within society in a certain way because the issue at hand is private and sexual in nature. 

“You have to use your personal position to challenge the politics of the issue,” DeBari said. “I feel like survivors are under the impression that they won’t be heard…Rape culture is a cycle, right? Because, survivors don’t want to come forward as they feel they’re going to be met with this animosity, then when they do come forward, they’re met with this kind of ‘ok, I don’t know what to do with this.’”

In DeBari’s personal experience, for example, she finds that when people discover she’s a survivor, they treat her with a strange type of pity that immediately discredits her opinions because she is “emotionally unstable.” 

To this DeBari responds, “No! I think my standpoint should be valuable because of my situation.” 

Haddiyyah Ali, this year’s Homecoming Queen and a third-semester political science and Africana studies double major, applauded DeBari’s efforts.

“I believe that research on issues of sexual assault is necessary for any community that seeks to cultivate substantial change and create safe space,” Ali said.

 “The threat of sexual assault on college campuses has an immense impact on the experiences of all those at risk, as it is impossible to be one’s whole self in places that you feel threatened physically and culturally. I’m not sure how effective the research will be, but that largely depends on the university’s willingness to recognize these experiences. The emergence of research studies such as this is encouraging as it adds to the body of knowledge on important issues and encourages future study.” 

Casey Healey, a fifth-semester Spanish and economics double major, women’s gender studies minor, and the president of UConn’s Revolution Against Rape (RAR), she said views the study as a sign of progress. 

“I think having more research in regards to individuals perceptions of sexual violence and rape culture is important in understanding how rape culture works on our campus and may provide insight in ways that we can combat it or services we can provide to students,” Healey said. 
“Small scale qualitative studies can give us an in-depth look at specific individuals at a moment in time. Although the results may not be generalizable, it can give us a better idea of what students at UConn think,” she said.

“Sexual violence is all too prevalent on college campuses and we normalize rape as a society and at UConn,” Healey continued. “Every day I experience rape culture, so I think it's fantastic that research is being conducted in regards to sexual violence on campus, especially at UConn, where we historically have not dealt with sexual violence appropriately.”


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.