The Importance Of Intersectional Responses To Gender-Based Violence

Written by: Dr. Emily Colpitts

As post-secondary institutions (PSIs) face unprecedented pressure to respond to sexual violence on campus, it’s important to consider how they’re framing violence. My research focuses on public universities in Ontario, where sexual violence policies were mandated by the provincial government in 2016. Of Ontario’s 22 universities, 10 have identity-neutral policies that don’t acknowledge the gendered nature of sexual violence or its intersections with systems of oppression. By contrast, the other 12 universities’ policies reference intersectionality, nine of which commit to integrating this analysis into their anti-violence efforts. These references are important because they acknowledge how systems of oppression shape vulnerability and barriers to accessing support. They can also be used to hold institutions accountable.

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and grounded in a long tradition of Black feminist activism, intersectionality is both a mode of critical analysis and practice that recognizes the inseparability of systems of oppression. As such, it must inform not only how we understand the issue of sexual violence on campus, but also how we take action to address and prevent violence. When these commitments to intersectionality fall short of translating into practice, our anti-violence efforts can become sites of harm and marginalization.


Whose voices and interests are prioritized? 

  • Are experts on sexual violence, including researchers and community anti-violence organizations, being consulted?

  • Do relevant committees and working groups include student representatives and how are they selected?

  • Does the composition of these groups reflect the diversity of the campus community?

  • What measures are in place to ensure that existing institutional inequalities aren’t reproduced in these spaces in ways that privilege certain voices and silence others?

  • Are student consultations well-advertised, held at regular intervals, and accessible?

  • Are there multiple modes for campus community members to share feedback?

  • Are the findings of these consultations summarized and made publicly available to improve transparency?

Do prevention efforts reflect an intersectional analysis?

  • Prevention efforts often frame sexual violence as a depoliticized, interpersonal issue. For example, consent education tends to ignore the power relations inherent in sexual violence.

  • They also often fail to address how privilege and oppression shape the ability to intervene as a bystander or to resist sexual violence without the risk of criminalization or escalating violence.

  • When prevention efforts focus solely on the gendered nature of violence, they typically re-centre the experiences of the ‘ideal’ survivor, who is understood to be a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender woman.

  • Increasing security and policing on campus can reproduce the ‘stranger danger’ myth and, based on how racism and colonialism are entrenched in these systems, may make members of the campus community less safe.

Are supports for survivors accessible and intersectional?

  • When support services privilege the needs and experiences of the ‘ideal’ survivor, they may reproduce the barriers that marginalized survivors face in accessing support

  • Representation matters. Campus community members want to see themselves reflected in these spaces.

  • Equity-seeking groups should have the opportunity to define their needs and priorities for support

Does the process for responding to complaints reflect an intersectional analysis?

  • Does it address the barriers that marginalized survivors face in reporting violence?

  • Does it make space to consider possibilities for justice beyond punishment?

  • Are supports available for respondents and those who cause harm? Are they accessible and intersectional?

  • Does this process recognize how perceptions of perpetration are shaped by racism and other systems of oppression? Is this reflected in institutional data collection and reporting to ensure that these systems are not reproduced in the response process?

How is the labour of responding to violence distributed?

  • Anti-violence work is generally devalued in our society and organizations face chronic underfunding, which impacts their capacity to support survivors.

  • This devaluation is mirrored in the post-secondary context, where the work of addressing violence is often performed by folks who are already marginalized within our institutions. Realistic workloads, job security, and access to benefits are essential.

  • Community organizations and student groups can bring expertise and experience to campus anti-violence efforts. These partnerships should be supported through clear MOUs and funding.


Suggested Citation: Colpitts, Emily. (2020, July). The Importance of Intersectional Responses to Gender-Based Violence. Courage to Act.

Emily Colpitts Headshot.jpg

Emily Colpitts

Emily Colpitts is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Feminist Research at York University. Her research critically analyses how Canadian universities take up intersectionality in their responses to campus sexual violence, along with the possibilities and challenges of engaging cisgender men and addressing masculinities in prevention efforts. As a teacher, she aims to create space in university classrooms for collective learning about gendered violence and for generating complex and creative visions of justice and healing. She is also a member of the Collective Board at Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape, where she has volunteered since 2017.

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