Ethics, Trust, and Confidentiality
Some scholars have discussed creating a code of ethics to guide professionals in their role (Ammons & King, 1984; Evetts, 2006; Mosher, 1968; Wilensky, 1964), and Evetts (2006) argues for a definition of professionalization that is based on confidentiality and trust. Because advocates are confidential resources and because trust will play a role in a survivor’s decision to report (ATIXA, 2015), these three concepts of professionalization—ethics, confidentiality, and trust—are relevant to the field of advocacy.
Another example of professionalization in social work suggests implications for advocacy. Blyth (2009) suggests that social workers, like advocates, place a high value on trust, reliability, nonjudgment, and being open with those they support. When social workers exemplified these traits and built open and trusting relationships, clients indicated that they valued the work done by the social workers and that they were satisfied with their care (Blewett, Lewis, & Tunstill, 2007).
These literatures contextualize our exploratory study, the goal of which was to better understand how the framing of sexual assault through Title IX is affecting the advocate role. The primary research questions were, first, how do campus victim advocates currently perceive and experience their role on college campuses? And second, how have developments around Title IX shaped those perceptions? The theme of potential prospects for professionalizing the field of advocacy that emerged from the data prompted an additional research question that we explore in this article: How might efforts to professionalize the field of advocacy address some of the challenges they are facing and change how they perceive and fulfill their role of serving and supporting survivors on college campuses in positive and negative ways?
This exploratory study is based on analysis of in-depth open-ended interviews with 15 campus-based victim advocates from across the United States. We employed two purposive sampling techniques, convenience and snowball, to recruit participants. One strategy was to ask participants in an earlier survey of campuses’ enforcement of new state laws (Brubaker & Mancini, 2017) to agree to be interviewed. A second strategy was to share an announcement about the study via a campus advocacy list-serve and at the 2016 NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) Strategies conference (https://goo.gl/ZafbB3). Some participants recruited other advocates. The small sample size reflects primary findings that advocates are overburdened with rising reports of sexual assault and understaffed offices, and the tense political climate around campus sexual assault has prompted some administrators to discourage personnel from discussing the issue. Several advocates shared that although they wanted to participate in the study, they were explicitly forbidden from doing so by their supervisors.
The interview guide was developed to focus on advocates’ training, background and approaches, their work environments, and their experiences doing advocacy on campus before and since the DCL went into effect. Questions also focused on changes to their role, what they liked and disliked about advocacy, what they thought campuses should be doing to address sexual assault, and their thoughts on the future of advocacy. The questions were reviewed by advocates who provided suggestions for both content and wording. Semi-structured, one-on-one interviews lasted between 30-80 min and were conducted by the first author in person, via telephone, or via teleconference between January and May 2016. They were audio recorded and transcribed.
A total of 15 advocates participated in the study. Most campuses are experiencing higher numbers of reports and are implementing new processes, making it difficult for advocates to find time to be interviewed. In addition, the nature of their work requires advocates to be available to respond to survivors immediately; a number of advocates scheduled interviews that they had to cancel to serve a client. Those who were able to participate, though fewer than ideal, provided detailed and thoughtful accounts of their experiences. While we cannot claim that the data fully reached saturation, we did see largely similar themes emerge from the data regarding challenges that Title IX had brought to campus advocates and their ability to serve survivors.
Here, we provide a general overview of the demographic characteristics of the participants and campuses, but we do not connect quotes to participants in an effort to protect their identities and ensure confidentiality. Fourteen participants self-identified as female, woman or cisgender woman. One identified as a man. Twelve identified as White, one as Black, one as Latina, and one as biracial (Hispanic and White). Participants ranged in age from 26-50. Eleven identified as straight or heterosexual, and four as queer or bisexual.
Almost all of the advocates had at least a master’s degree. One had a PhD, another a JD, two were working on PhDs, and one was completing an MSW. Most of the degrees were in social science fields, education, or public administration. Years of experience across participants varied, ranging from 2-16 years on a campus and from 2-24 years working in the community, in domestic violence or sexual assault organizations. All but one advocate had worked in a community setting before working on a campus, and most had substantial experience as interns or volunteers in crisis intervention, responding to hotlines, and so on.
Advocates identified a number of ideological and philosophical approaches that they bring to their positions, most describing some version of a survivor-/victim-centered or trauma-informed approach. Several embraced a “social justice” or “feminist” model, and a few described an “empowerment” model, where the focus is on empowering victims to make their own decisions regarding services and response. Those with stronger community backgrounds tended to embrace the most “progressive” ideals of empowerment and social justice.
Most (73%) of the advocates worked on large campuses (defined as greater than 11,000 students); three worked on campuses with between 5,000-10,000 students, and one worked on a campus with fewer than 5,000 students. Ten described their campuses as urban, one as rural, two as suburban, and two as some combination of these types. Ten institutions were public and five were private. Advocates were located across eight states, from every geographic region of the continental United States.
Employing a basic inductive and iterative thematic coding approach, we coded the transcribed interviews through a constant comparison process incorporating open and axial coding and clustering methods, and memoing to identify and explore themes. We looked for patterns across themes and identified quotes that helped to support major claims. We also used a priori concepts from the professionalization and advocacy literature to analyze relevant themes. To enhance the validity of the analysis, both authors participated in the coding process independently, and we met to discuss and come to agreement around the themes. We discussed the emergent themes with advocates who participated in the study, as well as with others working in the field. The analysis yielded thick descriptions of how advocates perceive Title IX’s framing of campus sexual assault and changes to their roles.
Similar to those in Moylan’s (2017) study, the advocates who participated in this study agreed that Title IX has increased awareness of and attention to sexual assault, and many also felt that their visibility and participation in campus processes had been enhanced through this attention. One advocate offered, “. . . it’s easier to advocate for certain things now that there’s attention to [sexual assault].” Another explained, “I think [sexual assault’s] part of the discourse a lot more than it used to be. It was a topic people avoided.” Yet another offered that he believed that Title IX had brought more credibility to everyone doing anti-violence work.
According to the participants, prior to the DCL, much of the work of campus responses to sexual assault was done by advocates, with some formally reported cases handled by campus police and/or campus judicial boards. Since the issuing of the DCL, the requirement to staff Title IX offices and adhere to Title IX processes has shifted the focus and provided a counterpoint to, and shined a light on, advocacy. This has had positive and negative impacts on the field. While campuses have always had individuals serving in a Title IX capacity, they have historically been housed in human resources departments and focused on employee relations. The DCL brought Title IX to campus sexual assault in a new and comprehensive way and communicated guidelines requiring that many more individuals were trained in responding to sexual misconduct. The specific changes advocates discussed were (a) the hiring of new staff, typically attorneys, into Title IX officer and coordinator positions and (b) the requirement that all campus employees, including faculty, become mandated reporters of sexual misconduct experienced by students. While these changes increased awareness of and attention to campus sexual assault, typically viewed positively by advocates, they also created problems in terms of confusion for students about confidential sources and where to turn for help, different and sometimes conflicting goals and expertise across roles, and the involvement of individuals in campus processes who were not always sufficiently trained. Several advocates also shared that the changes had diverted resources from prevention and advocacy to the compliance-focused Title IX processes.
Below we discuss these themes in terms of how the advocate role is being (re)defined on campuses through their relationships with other responders and how changes brought through the DCL create challenges to advocates’ ability to provide services to survivors.
(Re)Defining the Advocate Role and Relationships With Others
Several participants noted challenges to role clarity since the DCL went into effect. For example, one advocate described their role as being “cobbled together” with overlapping roles. Because of new regulations, some advocates began to take on additional roles and responsibilities. Multiple roles related to campus sexual assault response have also been added or expanded in light of Title IX guidance. One advocate lamented,
. . . a lot more people are in the decision-making process so there are a lot more difficult parts, right? Suddenly everyone’s an expert in our field in a way that maybe people didn’t care before, so they weren’t voicing their opinions . . .
Below we discuss advocates’ experiences with these new and changed roles and how they have required them to continue to clarify and define the advocate role.
Title IX officers.
Advocates reported that their relationships with Title IX officers were generally positive. One participant described how they felt that their Title IX officers understood and were invested in the work carried out by advocates; others described how Title IX officers were supportive of advocates and would serve as advisors when needed. Although not something experienced by participants of this study, some advocates did note that they had heard of other advocates who did not have positive experiences with their Title IX officers. Two participants, for example, indicated that their campus Title IX officers had previously served as advocates, so they were particularly sensitive to and supportive of advocacy:
Our Title IX coordinator is a former colleague of mine . . . so I think we are incredibly blessed to have someone who comes from victim advocacy perspective. . . . I know a lot of my colleagues are struggling within their Title IX offices . . . it makes a difference who that Title IX person is and whether they have training.