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Shadow labor: students working to prevent sexual violence

Westminster College students Ember Bradbury, Mary Grace Lewis and Kenzie Campbell. These three roommates and friends commit their time to sexual violence prevention, however, unlike other jobs, sexual violence advocacy is a 24-7 job and can be emotionally exhausting, they said. (Photo by Sabi Lowder)

This story is the second of a two-part series following the experiences of those performing shadow work to support survivors and prevent sexual violence. You can read the first story here. For Title IX and support resources at Westminster College, please visit this webpage.

Ember Bradbury, Mary Grace Lewis and Kenzie Campbell are roommates and friends who all commit their time to sexual violence prevention.

Bradbury is a crisis advocate at the YWCA domestic violence shelter and president of the Tipping Point, a club that raises awareness of human trafficking and sexual assault, and Feminist Club, whose focus is on radical feminism and empowerment. Lewis and Campbell are both a part of the campus PEER team, a student-led peer education group for the Title IX office, and both research sexual violence on college campuses as a part of the Sociology of Sexual Violence course.

Unlike other jobs, sexual violence advocacy isn’t something they stop doing once they leave work or class, they said. This is shadow labor which according to sociologist Craig Lambert, is any unpaid work we do and is likely to affect women and marginalized groups.

This hidden labor — shadow labor — follows them into their social lives, they said.  

“Shooting off texts, making sure everyone’s home safe, making sure that people are with safe people,” Bradbury said. “I feel bad if I don’t do it.”

In 2007, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported that 32% of college students have experienced dating violence. In 2015, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reported that 11.2% of college students experienced rape or sexual assault and that only 20% of women reported to law enforcement.

In 2018, Westminster’s crime log reported there were three rapes, one sexual assault, and one incident of domestic violence reported. There have been no incidents in 2019, according to the crime log.

Parties, casual conversations and introductions are all possible workplaces for Bradbury, Lewis and Campbell. It becomes an expectation to listen to trauma stories at any time when you do advocacy work, Lewis said.

“There’s probably been, like, more than 20 times last year where people disclose [a sexual assault] or disclose to their friends and asked me,” Campbell said. “I never feel prepared and then it happens.”

Campbell said she’s happy to give information to students and to get students involved in sexual assault awareness and prevention, but the work can be emotionally and socially draining.

Despite the PEER position being unpaid, Campbell said she puts as much into it as she does her paid positions on campus.

Another part of their labor is to disclose their own personal experiences, Lewis said, especially when it comes to talking to male friends. As educators, advocates and women, Bradbury, Lewis and Campbell said they are put in a position where they have to relive their traumas to get their message across.

Lewis said it feels like her responsibility to make men empathize, and it requires a level of vulnerability.

Bradbury said she’s had to expose herself and share her experiences of violence when trying to educate her male friends.

“This is what happened to me, do you get it now? Do you get why it’s so fucked up?” Bradbury said. “You care about me. It happened to me.”

Bradbury said this exposure goes beyond interacting with friends, and even comes up when she’s talking to people she hardly knows. Responding to a casual question like, “What’s your job?” could mean having to explain her own trauma to a stranger — all while she’s having a few drinks at a party, seemingly off-duty.

Despite the excess shadow labor that sexual violence work requires, Bradbury said she finds the work gratifying. She said it is too important, and she loves being a part of womens’ healing processes.

Campbell, Bradbury, and Lewis said they will continue to do their labor — both hidden and recognized — because they said they feel like they’re the only ones who will.

“When you look at the Title IX educators,” Campbell said, “I don’t know if there would be a consistent student voice if we stopped.”

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