Institutional Betrayal as a Motivator for Campus Sexual Assault Activism


Institutional betrayal, feelings of treason that occur when an institution fails to prevent or respond appropriately to wrongdoings committed within the context of an institution, contributes to exacerbated trauma for survivors of sexual violence (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Through a qualitative research study, we examine experiences of 10 sexual violence activist-survivors related to institutional betrayal. Participants describe individual, departmental, and systemic institutional betrayal. Additionally, we explore institutional betrayal as a motivator for campus activism and provide implications for student affairs educators striving to prevent and effectively respond to sexual violence on their campuses.

[Public Ivy] was actually the first school I stepped foot on. I fell in love with Public Ivy; it was everything I ever wanted . . . It was my number one choice school . . . And I knew that as soon as I stepped foot here. – Lynn

As a new college student, Lynn had high expectations that her institution would provide an environment that would allow her to study, develop friendships and mentorships, emerge as a leader, and ultimately be safe. Many students, similar to Lynn, feel an affinity and loyalty to their institutions even before stepping foot on their campuses. As they arrive and participate in the rituals and traditions designed to engage them as community members, their institutional loyalty grows (Jackson & Neilsen, 2014; Ziering & Dick, 2015). Unfortunately, for some students, this excitement quickly changes to fear and anxiety as a result of sexual violence, as first-year women are more likely to experience sexual assault than older students (Gidycz, Orchowski, King, & Rich, 2008). Rates of sexual violence in college have remained consistently high since the 1950s, hovering around one in four or one in five college women experiencing sexual violence in her college career (Adams-Curtis & Forbes, 2004).

Unfortunately, the vast majority of students (about 85%) do not report their experiences with sexual violence to campus administrators or law enforcement (Sabina & Ho, 2014). When survivors do report to officials, they frequently experience institutional betrayal, or feelings of treason that occur when an institution fails to prevent or respond appropriately to wrongdoings committed within the context of the institution (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Despite the reality that survivors frequently experience institutional betrayal, they often describe fierce loyalty to the institutions they attend. This loyalty fuels their activism related to sexual violence on their campuses (Jackson & Neilsen, 2014; Ziering & Dick, 2015); therefore, in this article, we refer to the participants as activist-survivors. For the purposes of this article, we define activism as organizing to transform systems of oppression for comprehensive social change (Broadhurst, 2014; Renn, 2007).

Students have been organizing on college campuses for centuries. Sometimes students organize for larger societal issues (Broadhurst, 2014); other times, they organize to improve their experiences on campus (Rhoads, 1997). Students organizing on campus frequently work to address issues of oppression related to their social identities. For example, Students of Color work to address racism on campus, women to address sexism, and LGBT students to address homophobia and transphobia (Rhoads, 1997). Institutional betrayal likely motivates the activism of students from a variety of marginalized social identities, yet this is not yet formally documented through scholarship. In this article, we examine the influence of institutional betrayal on the experiences of activist-survivors, including the role it plays in motivating their activism.

Using Internet-related ethnography (Postill & Pink, 2012), we examined the strategies and experiences of campus sexual violence activists by interviewing 23 campus activists and observing online communities dedicated to addressing sexual violence on college campuses. The research question for the larger study included: What are the strategies of campus sexual violence activists? As we analyzed the data, we noted some participants described experiences with institutional betrayal, prompting us to take a deeper look at institutional betrayal in the findings. We reanalyzed the transcripts from 10 participants who described experiences with institutional betrayal and organized their responses into three major categories: individual, departmental, and systemic institutional betrayal. We conclude the article with implications for student affairs educators striving to prevent and effectively respond to sexual violence on their campuses.


Institutional betrayal has origins in betrayal trauma theory and betrayal blindness (Freyd, 1996). Betrayal trauma theory posits that abuse perpetrated within close relationships is more harmful than abuse perpetrated by strangers because of the violation of trust within the relationship (Freyd, 1996). Betrayal blindness refers to the reality that some individuals must ignore or minimize their experiences with betrayal for survival. Building on concepts of betrayal trauma theory and betrayal blindness, institutional betrayal highlights the ways organizations perpetuate betrayal trauma by perpetuating or remaining ignorant to instances of trauma experienced by members of their community (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Institutions that “foster a sense of trust or dependency” (Smith & Freyd, 2014, p. 578) may perpetuate institutional betrayal by violating that sense of trust and dependency. Institutional betrayal includes acts of commission and omission. Although some acts of institutional betrayal are intentional, any member of an institution may commit institutional betrayal without the awareness of doing so. This leaves some educators and administrators unknowingly committing institutional betrayal toward survivors of sexual violence (Smith & Freyd, 2014). For example, an individual academic advisor may commit institutional betrayal through an act of omission by failing to refer a student for counseling when they disclose that they are struggling to keep up in their classes because of an emotionally distressing situation. Similarly, when institutional policies or campus culture purposely fail to hold perpetrators accountable for sexual violence, they are committing systemic institutional betrayal through an act of commission.

Specific tenets of institutional betrayal include failing to prevent abuse, normalizing abusive contexts, creating difficult processes for reporting, failing to adequately respond to instances of harm, supporting cover-ups and misinformation, and punishing victims and whistleblowers (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Institutional betrayal may occur related to any instance of harm experienced by members of a community and is compounded with additional layers of marginalization (Smith & Freyd, 2013). When members of college and university communities experience racism, homophobia, or transphobia and the institution fails to respond appropriately, institutional betrayal occurs. For example, when Students of Color experience racism through social media platforms like Yik Yak, the most significant harm to those students may come as a result of the university’s failure to respond and address the comments on Yik Yak. The lack of response is more harmful than the actual comments because the students’ trust in the institution to create an environment in which they are valued and respected is violated. Similarly, mis- handling sexual assault cases illuminates the relationship between institutional betrayal and sexual violence. Students’ trauma is exacerbated by the institution’s failure to respond because they have an expectation of safety and trust from the institution (Smith & Freyd, 2013).

The underreporting of sexual violence on college campuses represents additional evidence of institutional betrayal. College students report sexual assault at alarmingly low rates, with studies suggesting that between 0 and 13% of sexual assault victims report the crime to police or campus authorities (Sabina & Ho, 2014). Survivors describe their distrust of the university’s response as one of the primary factors contributing to their desire not to report (Sabina & Ho, 2014). Survivors may not report the crime because they fear not being taken seriously or are not sure that what happened to them “counts” as sexual assault (Fisher, Daigle, Cullen, & Turner, 2003; Sabina & Ho, 2014). Additionally, power and privilege associated with social identities influence students’ decisions to report, illuminating Smith and Freyd’s (2014) principle of the relationship between marginalization and institutional betrayal. For example, research indicates that younger students and students from working class backgrounds are less likely to report sexual violence (Fisher et al., 2003). Women of Color (Henry, 2009), men (Banyard et al., 2007), and likely LGBT students are less likely to report sexual violence to authorities than White, middle-class, cisgender, and heterosexual women.

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