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“It’s Not on Us, It’s On YOU”: Activism Against Sexual Violence on University of California Campuses


A large scale multi-campus movement against sexual violence emerged in the early 2010s across the United States as a result of changes in gender relations and cultural, social, and political shifts since the 1970s. Gendered and political opportunity structures helped launch this successful movement, but they developed distinctly at the local level. Local contextual factors in the immediate environment of activists constrained or facilitated the broader opportunity structures that enabled this movement. My research examines these factors through the student movement against sexual violence on two University of California (UC) campuses, Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and provides an in-depth analysis of the activists campaigns that developed on each campus and the local factors that influenced them. UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara have the highest reported rates of sexual violence in the UC system, strong anti-sexual violence activist campaigns within the last five years, and a long history of student activism, but they have differed widely in terms of tactics and how sexual violence is framed. I address the following research questions: why and how did students mobilize a movement against sexual violence on UC campuses in the 2010s?; what factors influenced the students’ tactical repertoire and demands?; and what conditions prevented or facilitated the growth of activism against sexual violence on these campuses?

Utilizing qualitative methods, including participant observation, semi-structured in-depth interviews, and archival research, I examine the local and institutional factors that affected various aspects of the campus movement including timing, tactical repertoire, and trajectory. For UC Berkeley, the involvement of student organizations, the school’s prestige, and ties to a larger network comprised of survivor activists from colleges and universities across the country were critical in the development of the movement there. At UC Santa Barbara, the school’s party culture and violent local events mobilized students, but they also diverted attention from issues of sexual violence to broader issues of safety. This had a deterring effect on the movement. The tactics used by students varied and were influenced by when in the cycle of protest the movements developed, the mass media, institutional factors, and the racial and class background of activists. UC Berkeley activist leaders came from more privileged backgrounds and their connections to activists from other schools affected their use of more conventional tactics including Title IX complaints and lawsuits. UC Santa Barbara student leaders were mostly working-class women of color who did not have the resources and social and cultural capital to pursue some of the conventional tactics UC Berkeley students used. Instead, they relied on nonviolent direct action to push the university to address sexual violence.

Although there were key differences across both campuses, emotional labor was key to the emergence of the movement on both campuses. The examination of activist campaigns and efforts showed the invisible emotional labor student activists engaged in and the consequences it had for the movement. Survivor activists disclosed their experiences of sexual assault and mistreatment by their universities through different tactics, but they had the similar effect of evoking collective trauma resonance, or the empathy and emotional connection shared among people who have gone through similar traumatic experiences, among other students. The emotional unpaid labor or managing their emotions while helping survivors of sexual violence took a toll on the activists themselves and the movement.

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