Skip to main content

Aynsley Pescitelli

PhD Candidate
Arts + Social Sciences › Criminology

empty
a lotus blooming
Credit
unsplash.com

Why is understanding sexual violence important as a graduate student? Sexual Violence is an umbrella term that includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, taking photos without someone’s consent and more. Sexual violence is not strictly an undergraduate student problem, and campus-based sexual violence continues to pose an issue at the graduate student level.  It is important for sexual violence support services and policies to address the needs of all students, not just those seen as being most at-risk. Graduate students are embedded in their programs and the University and have complex and unique needs as a result of their status and multiple roles. 

Unfortunately, there is a lack of current research considering graduate student experiences with sexual violence and their unique needs in regards to resources and support options.  While the recent media coverage on the topic of sexual violence at universities and colleges has brought the topic into the spotlight (which has increased research interest) the bulk of this attention has been on undergraduate student populations.  This focus isn’t entirely surprising, especially given the high incidence rates within undergraduate populations as a whole and in particular during the first few months of classes. It is, however, important to keep in mind that graduate students were once undergraduates themselves and were thus likely exposed to similar experiences as early university and college students.  These students may still require support for historical campus-based sexual violence.  Additionally, the way in which sexual violence is experienced (and the potential impacts of disclosing or reporting) has the potential to be very different at the graduate level.  Such factors may influence how graduate students define and experience sexual violence, as well as how comfortable they feel in accessing services and with the options available to them. When it comes to sexual violence response and barriers to disclosing, there are many unique factors to consider for grad students.

 1. Graduate Students Wear Many Hats

One of the most unusual aspects of graduate-level studies is that students often occupy multiple roles.  Identities are fluid and overlapping, with individuals in many cases being both students and teachers, supervisors and supervisees, while at the same time conducting their own research.  Students are often employed by the University, working in many cases as research and/or teaching assistants and sessional instructors, and thus may have multiple supervisors at any one time.  Many students also work for the University outside of their home department, in both academic and non-academic positions.  Grad students tend to work more closely with individual faculty members than undergraduates do, both in terms of coursework and supervision.  These multiple forms of labour and learning can lead to a great deal of dependence on faculty members and work and research supervisors for continuing and future employment and opportunities. 

 2. Multiple Roles = Multiple Possibilities for Sexual Violence

Because graduate students occupy such a unique position in the institutional hierarchy, this also results in a distinct risk for sexual violence.  Grad students are potentially vulnerable to peer-based sexual violence from other graduate students, power-based sexual violence from individuals who teach and/or supervise them in an academic or professional capacity and from undergraduate students they teach or supervise.  Similarly, graduate student perpetrators pose a unique risk to others with potential connection to these groups.  Although undergraduate students are possibly at higher risk of student-perpetrated sexual violence, some research indicates that graduate students are more likely to experience faculty-perpetrated sexual violence.

3. Multiple Roles = Increased Possibility of Receiving Disclosures

Grad students who teach also occupy a limbo-like position in the University structure, often serving as a bridge between undergraduates and faculty members. Those of us who work in tutorial or lab settings are able to work with undergrads in small groups, creating greater comfort and familiarity in comparison to large lecture settings.  Consequently, students may feel more comfortable contacting us about course - or University-related concerns, including those surrounding sexual violence. In such cases, students in need of accommodation, advice, or resources may prefer to approach their TA rather than their instructor or course supervisor.  It is important that graduate students remain informed of resource and support options for several reasons. Being adequately informed is useful to be able to provide students who disclose sexual violence with accurate information on support services and information on how to connect people with services.  Additionally, grad students may need to consult these supports if they are feeling impacted by the disclosure.

4. Graduate Degrees are Both High Reward & High Stakes

Graduate students are tied into the University to a greater degree than the average undergraduate. Our degrees are lengthy ones (especially if you’re completing a PhD!), which means a great deal of time and labour investment. The institutional stakes are high for anystudent who experiences sexual violence at the postsecondary level, and decisions made after experiencing sexual violence can have both long-lasting and wide-ranging impacts.  These stakes are potentially even higher for those at the graduate level, and the decision to take a leave of absence, to change supervisors or institution, or to abandon a degree altogether become even more costly for advanced students who are so thoroughly linked to an individual institution, department, or field of study. 

There is a lot at stake for graduate students when it comes to sexual violence and as SFU’s Sexual Violence and Misconduct policy is continuing to be implemented, it will be interesting to see how it meets the needs of graduate students. The establishment of a formal Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office is one of the most exciting results of the policy, and I am looking forward to the promise of educational and support opportunities offered by the University. 

Beyond the Blog

  • The Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO) now has it's own blog page. Keep up to date with new blogs on the SVSPO website.

  • Visit SFU's Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office website to learn more about consent, locate on-campus support and services for Survivors, and keep up to date on upcoming SVSPO initiatives. 

About the Author

Aynsley Pescitelli

PhD Candidate
Arts + Social Sciences › Criminology
Aynsley Pescitelli is a PhD Candidate in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University (SFU).  Her research interests include sexual violence at post-secondary institutions, sexual violence policy, media representations of crime and criminal justice, victimology, and feminist criminology. Her doctoral research examines the role of graduate students in sexual violence policy, procedures, and resources at Canadian postsecondary institutions.
Jien Hilario photo
What’s in a Name? Coming to Terms With Labelling Myself as a Person With a Disability

If you were to see Jien on campus, you wouldn’t know that she had a disability. She does not use a wheelchair nor does she have a seeing eye dog. She has an invisible disability. In this article, Jien shares her journey on how she came to terms with labeling herself as a person with a disability. 

Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere
Why Doesn’t Canada Have a Disabilities Act?

It is 2018 and Canada has not yet implemented adequate protection and legislation for people with disabilities. When it comes to equality for all, Canada is falling far behind. In this article, Jien discusses the research and reality of why Canada needs a Disabilities Act.

We Can Do It!
How to Satisfy Your Inner Activist

When people think about social justice, they think of things like protests or hunger strikes, but the options don’t end there. These volunteer organizations can help you satisfy your inner activist.

You Might Like These... Professional Development, Graduate Students

SFU graduation
Applying to Graduate School: A Students Guide

Someone once said that you should write about what you know. So when I was asked by one of the Peer Education Coordinators to write a career-related blog for their website, I felt compelled to write about the process of applying for graduate school, as I am currently applying for several schools myself.

Ryan Schmidt
Treaty Negotiations with INAC

Being an arts and social sciences student means having a vast variety of career options open to us. One of them being a treaty negotiator at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)! Read Ryan's blog to find out more about what this position entails. 

Autumn staring out into the distance, with a view of Peruvian mountains in the background
Scholarly Adventures in Peru

Q  & A's with Autumn Mochinski, a student who participated in a funded  international placement with the PAHO/ WHO to prepare an assessment of social  determinants and health and Tuberculosis in Lima, Peru.

You Might Like These... Co-op Reflections

Evgeny and colleagues
Improving Professionally and Personally

Evgeny not only met his goals professionally at Broadcom, but he was able to improve in more ways than he could imagine - including meeting his personal goals and growing as an individual. In this four part blog series, Evgeny shares with us his co-op experience at Broadcom. 

animation of graduation cap
Is Grad School the Right Next-Step?

If you are about to finish your undergraduate degree, you might be wondering if you should go to grad school. But how do you know if grad school is right for you? Srijani Datta,  breaks it down. 

Aboriginal Logo
Graduate Aboriginal Scholarships Attract Diverse Scholars

The successful applicants for the 2014 Graduate Aboriginal Entrance Scholarships were Jordan Abel and Christina Coolidge. They are exploring different aspects of Aboriginal storytelling.