The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have illuminated the unequal ways that attention is paid to survivors (and perpetrators) of different economic circumstances, racialized status, gender identities and sexualities, and abilities. While many highly public movements play out in real time on an international scale, a new generation of history scholars is grappling with how to handle sexual violence in the past - in their classrooms and research projects - and in assessing how historical inequities intersect with sexual violence in the present.
Historians and scholars need to recognize that sexual violence cannot be treated “simply” as an academic subject, no matter how “distantly” in the past. People in our classrooms – students and teachers alike – enter learning environments with a wide range of identities and personal histories, including lived experiences of sexual violence. To create accommodating classrooms, teachers must not only commit to a rigorous analysis of historical ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ of sexual violence, but most especially attend to the real effects of teaching historical sexual violence in a classroom full of students who are statistically at risk of being or becoming either and both perpetrator and victim of sexual violence.
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, often, the historian teaching episodes of sexual violence pays more attention to their historical subjects than to the lived realities of their students and their experiences of gender-based discrimination and violence.The gap between historical analysis and empathy can be cavernous. Emotions and feelings, those of our subjects, and most crucially, of our students, must be a source of knowledge going forward. Teachers must acknowledge the historical exclusions and impacts of colonialism, the systemic power dynamics, and the institutional barriers that make our classrooms safe and comfortable for certain students, to the detriment and discomfort of the historically marginalized.
History must meet empathy.
History teachers must be assertive in addressing the barriers to teaching sexual violence and to meeting the goal of generating accessible classrooms. Teachers must be sensitive to students’ diverse experiences but still investigate the prevalence of sexual violence throughout history with disciplinary rigour. Further, we must act resolutely to restructure 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 and classrooms. For example, instructors (at any level) typically receive no training that prepares them for dealing with trauma in the classroom, a crucial consideration for handling a topic like sexual violence.
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 who are women, racialized, queer, differently abled, or are 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 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.” Trauma-informed approaches can help make the classroom safer and more welcoming for students, teaching assistants, and instructors.
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. There is a danger of assuming an innate human tendency to commit sexual violence, instead of understanding the phenomenon with its social, cultural, and political contexts. One consistent justification for sexual violence in history is the assumption of male 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 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.
Written by 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. With intellectual contributions from Kaitlyn Carter, Sanchia deSouza, and Zixian Liu.
The authors 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.