TEACHING PSYCHOLOGY MAJORS TO STUDY WOMEN'S SEXUAL VICTIMIZATION: A FEMINIST APPROACH TO ADVANCED RESEARCH METHODS


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jennifer Katz, Department of Psychology, SUNY College at Geneseo, Geneseo, NY 14454. E-mail: katz@geneseo.edu

This article describes my efforts to integrate theory, research, and pedagogy related to the psychology of women into Advanced Research Methods in Psychology. I teach at SUNY Geneseo, a small undergraduate liberal arts college in upstate New York. All undergraduate psychology majors at Geneseo must successfully complete a one-semester Advanced Research Methods course such as this one after completing introductory courses in behavioral statistics and research methods. My colleagues teach sections of Advanced Research Methods with subtitles such as The Accuracy of Memory, Intrinsic Motivation, Threat and Prejudice, Attention and Emotion, and First Impressions; my own course subtitle is Sexual Aggression. Across all sections, Advanced Research Methods students critically examine the relevant scientific literature in a specific content area, develop research hypotheses based on this literature, analyze data using SPSS statistical software, and complete three full-length scientific reports within a single semester of 15 weeks. Because of the intensive workload for students and instructors alike, enrollment is limited to 15 students, and instructors explicitly integrate their own academic interests into their teaching.

My approach to Advanced Research Methods has been strongly informed by The Feminist Classroom: Dynamics of Gender, Race, and Privilege, by Frances Maher and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault (2001). In their analysis of feminist instructors teaching across the United States, these authors reveal striking commonalities in the philosophies and objectives of feminist instructors despite different academic disciplines, ideologies, classroom behaviors, and other variations. That is, Maher and Thompson Tetreault “shared with all the participants a commitment to taking women students seriously, a consciousness of the extent to which gender is embedded in our social structures, and an understanding of the differing educational needs of different groups of students” (p. 6). This definition of a feminist classroom has encouraged me to focus both on the subject matter of our course and on how classroom interactions and requirements potentially foster (or inhibit) individual academic growth.

I teach Advanced Research Methods using course content related to the psychology of women and course methods grounded in feminist pedagogy. Early in the course, we explore the research literature on women's sexual victimization while practicing hypothesis development and statistical analysis using preexisting data. Later, we design and implement a study of factors that influence perceptions of women's sexual victimization, enabling students to conduct individualized final projects and prepare scientific reports. In brief, the students and I critically review the existing literature regarding women's experiences of sexual victimization, and we use this knowledge to ask and answer new questions about an old problem.

GETTING STARTED

Our initial readings and discussions about women's experiences of sexual victimization establish that this is a pervasive social problem worthy of empirical attention. The students and I explore different definitions of victimization and related constructs. We also discuss the integration of personal values with the scientific literature, the ways in which one's position affects knowledge, and the contexts of women's victimization experiences.

To begin the course, we review empirical articles employing primarily quantitative methods focused on varied definitions of sexual victimization in the research community, within legal statutes, and in lay terms. One consistent emergent theme involves the relationship between definitions and prevalence rates. That is, more behaviorally specific measurement items (e.g., “How many times have you been unable to stop unwanted sex from happening because you were being held down?”) yield higher prevalence rates than general queries (e.g., “How many times have you been raped?”). We also explore the array of tactics used to coerce unwanted sex (i.e., psychological pressure, physical incapacitation, and physical force) and forms of victimization (e.g., attempted rape) that do not involve sexual penetration. These sources suggest that, for at least some researchers, diverse experiences are acknowledged as forms of sexual victimization.

Early course discussions also center on delineating necessary and sufficient context-free conditions of rape or attempted rape. We consider varying definitions of sexual consent, resistance, intimidation, and force (Muehlenhard & Peterson, 2004). If a man sexually penetrates an immobile, crying woman, has she consented? If a woman follows instructions to undress, however reluctantly, is she participating in and therefore culpable for what happens next? Are verbal refusals always required, or is physical resistance required—and, if so, how much? Readings and discussions reveal that consent, resistance, intimidation, and force are conceptualized differently across individuals and from the perspective of the victim (“I didn't say yes”) versus perpetrator (“She didn't say no”). Furthermore, perceptions of consent in particular are strongly affected by context. For example, a sexually mature woman's consent is generally presumed, unless she expresses “sufficient” resistance; in contrast, a younger girl is typically seen as incapable of making her own sexual decisions.

In my experience, students express strong emotions in this initial section of the course, especially after examining prevalence data from nationally representative samples. Some students openly express dismay about this information, which starkly presents the sexual victimization of women as a widespread social problem. As one student memorably commented, “I can't believe this still happens!” Prevalence data challenge the minimization and denial of the very real problem of women's sexual victimization—both at a social level and regarding students' own experiences. At the same time, some unsettled students express strong opposition to the sexual victimization literature. Most commonly, they criticize uncorroborated self-reports, inconsistent operational definitions across studies, the depiction of men as dominant aggressors and women as powerless victims, and nonpenetrative sexual experiences that seem to be “no big deal.” Such criticisms provoke apparent annoyance regarding the time spent on apparently invalid research.

Discussions of these emotional reactions—dismay and skepticism alike—enable us to integrate personal values into understanding the topic of sexual victimization. We acknowledge that multiple viewpoints may coexist by exploring the assumptions that underlie studies relying on different definitions and contexts. Individual students realize that their own beliefs, feelings, and experiences related to women's victimization affect both how they understand victimization and how they react to different sources. Put another way, we explore the idea of situated knowledge: What is known and how we know it depends on our position in relation to the subject matter. For example, multiple and possibly divergent truths about women's victimization experiences are simultaneously offered by victims, perpetrators, law enforcement, social scientists, and students themselves.

In turn, when students understand that their position on a topic affects how and what knowledge may be produced, they become more aware that researchers themselves also have values that influence the research process. In other words, researchers employing quantitative methods choose which literatures to review, which hypotheses to test, which populations to sample, which constructs to measure, and so on. By comparing the results of studies based on different values and assumptions and by reflecting on their own reactions to various studies, students recognize that values play an important role in the execution and interpretation of all empirical research.

In addition to reviewing literature addressing different sources of and types of knowledge, assigned sources acknowledge the larger contexts within which women's sexual victimization commonly occurs. Specific readings vary across semesters but consistently involve some combination of developmental, interpersonal, and social contexts of victimization. These sources challenge the common tendency to attribute women's victimization to women's various misbehaviors (e.g., drinking) or faults (e.g., passivity). In other words, studying these contextual factors allows us to consider possible sources of victimized women's disempowerment.

Studying women's victimization in developmental context, as related to past sexual abuse, has helped many students develop a more nuanced view of adult women's victimization. During some semesters we review the revictimization literature documenting childhood sexual abuse and adolescent sexual victimization as predictors of adult victimization. We consider some of the potential behavioral consequences of early victimization that may foster risk (e.g., having multiple casual partners, heavy drinking, and sexual submissiveness). This information helps students appreciate how early sexual abuse can broadly affect girls' development and later risk for future victimization.

Studying the interpersonal context of women's victimization during some semesters also has enabled students to understand the complexities of sexual behavior within intimate relationships. Such research challenges the typical inaccurate assumption that strangers most commonly perpetrate sexual violence. Furthermore, studying intimate partner perpetration enables us to discuss sexual rights and power within heterosexual relationships. For example, in the context of past consensual sexual activity, women's sexual refusals are often perceived to be less legitimate, even by women themselves. This perception may inhibit women's sexual refusal assertiveness. Assertiveness may further be inhibited because women's concerns for their intimate partners' feelings compete with women's lack of desire for engaging in sex. Examining the relational context of victimization allows students to explore interpersonal dynamics as well as sociocultural beliefs regarding women, “appropriate” gendered behavior, and heterosexuality.

Despite individual differences in adherence to socio-cultural belief systems, collective understandings of gender and heterosexuality affect how researchers, students, and women themselves view sexual victimization. Across different semesters, students have reviewed literature focused on sexist beliefs, rape myths, and normative heterosexuality. Regardless, studying beliefs that reflect larger social structures helps students understand women's victimization experiences, both as individuals and as part of the female gender.

CO-CONSTRUCTING KNOWLEDGE VIA ORIGINAL EMPIRICAL RESEARCH

As students collectively explore the research literature on sexual victimization and its contexts, they also learn statistical skills needed to formulate and test hypotheses. Each semester, students analyze a preexisting data set collected within my research lab in order to write two APA-style empirical papers; the second builds substantially on the first. The specific data sets and variables vary across semesters but consistently center on college women's actual sexual victimization experiences in childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, or some combination.

In contrast, for the third empirical paper, students brainstorm about their own interests, explore the existing literature regarding these variables, and develop a novel class project to extend the past literature. We begin by examining previous student projects and by brainstorming ideas. Next, students divide into working groups to search the existing literature, report back to the class during designated meetings, and formulate hypotheses derived from theory, research, and their own interests.

As students pose their own questions related to women's sexual victimization, they also contribute to the various sections of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposal for the project (which I manage) and generate a reading list of articles for shared use. Finally, after IRB approval is obtained, we collect empirical self-report data from a minimum of 120 undergraduates through the Psychology Department's voluntary human subjects pool. Because of the sensitive nature of our course topic, class projects consistently employ anonymous data collection procedures. The projects focus on factors that influence perceptions of sexual victimization rather than actual victimization experiences. We incorporate multiple independent and dependent variables, so that individual students can focus on specific study variables of greatest interest. In this way, student responsibility for the design and implementation of research (and for the class itself) increases greatly during the semester.

Over the past four semesters, students' projects have examined perceptions of (a) male- versus female-perpetrated verbal sexual coercion (i.e., sexual penetration obtained by use of persistent verbal pressure), (b) male-perpetrated verbal sexual coercion across different relationship contexts (acquaintance, friend, partner, fiancé), (c) attempted rape perpetrated by a man toward women and men of varying sexual orientations, and (d) rape perpetrated by more or less physically attractive men across different relationship contexts (acquaintance or dating partner). Some students also examined one or more individual difference factors (e.g., rape myth acceptance, sexist beliefs, rape empathy). Types of perceptions (or dependent variables) also have varied but have included, for example, measures of perceived perpetrator responsibility and guilt as well as perceived victim sexual obligation, distress, pleasure, and token resistance.

Personal values, integrated with past theory and research, guide the student researchers' work. For example, in one class, the students often bemoaned the apparent lack of women's agency in the sexual victimization literature. This perspective inspired them to study perceptions of female-perpetrated sexual coercion. Similarly, students in another class decried the relative lack of diversity in the literature; these students performed their study on perceptions of sexual minorities who experience victimization. Within each class project, however, the inclusion of measures of individual differences and of multiple types of perceptions allowed individual student researchers to address their own specific questions by applying skills acquired during the semester. To illustrate, three titles of student projects from a single semester are: “The Effects of Rape Myth Acceptance and Perpetrator Attractiveness on Perceived Victim Responsibility in a Hypothetical Acquaintance Rape,”“Effects of Victim-Perpetrator Relationship and Observer Sex on Perceptions of Sexual Obligation and Victim Distress in Hypothetical Scenarios of Female Rape,” and “Is He Guilty? Effects of Perpetrator Attractiveness and Relationship Context on Perceptions of Hypothetical Rape Situations.”

CONCLUSION

Teaching undergraduates research methods in a feminist classroom involves many challenges. These include (a) managing the limits of a strictly quantitative approach commonly emphasized in scientific psychology, (b) promoting student autonomy despite my position of classroom authority, and (c) distributing my time evenly across students both during and outside of class. Nevertheless, Advanced Research Methods is my most rewarding class. For the vast majority of these students, this will be their single, albeit unofficial, women's studies course. Students deepen their understanding of gender and power by reviewing the literature on women's sexual victimization. Beyond this content focus, students learn to co-construct knowledge collaboratively from diverse sources and shared expertise. Such constructions, in turn, enable individual academic and personal growth. I hope that many of my Advanced Research Methods students continue to foster productive relationships with others as they pursue intellectual challenges throughout their lives.

Jennifer Katz, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at SUNY College at Geneseo in upstate New York.

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