Institute on sexual violence helps create ‘intellectual community’ focused on the social problem

“Diverse Philosophical Approaches to Sexual Violence” was a two-week institute led by Philosophy Professor Ann Cahill and funded by a $112,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant. 

For the past two weeks, Elon has hosted a rich discussion focused on the philosophical questions surrounding sexual violence through a National Endowment of the Humanities-funded institute. 

Participants in the institute used these foundational texts as the basis for the discussion themese during the two-week event. 
Designed and led by Ann Cahill, professor of philosophy, the two-week institute attracted an international array of emerging and established scholars from a variety of disciplines. Cahill, who last year was awarded a $112,000 grant by the NEH to support the initiative, said the institute has succeeded in a creating an intellectual community around the discussion of the persistent problem of sexual violence that will extend beyond Elon. 

“It’s been thrilling to see that emerging from a group of nearly 30 people who, before the beginning of these two weeks, had little connection with each other,” Cahill said. “The participants are already talking among themselves about hosting a conference in one year, so they can bring back all the work that’s been inspired by the institute.”

Titled “Diverse Philosophical Approaches to Sexual Violence,” the institute attracted a lineup of visiting scholars from the U.S. as well as South Africa and New Zealand who interacted with the participants in larger discussions as well as one-on-one. Visiting scholars overlapped with each other during the week, offering the opportunity to explore their scholarly differences and disagreements, Cahill said. 

“Some of the controversies we’re disagreeing about have been controversies that have really split intellectual communities,” Cahill said. “But this has been a great way to learn about all the perspectives on the table — where we agree or disagree, where the theories converge or diverge. Being able to articulate differences is very important, and clarifying.”

Ann Cahill, professor of philosophy
​The nearly 30 participants have been living on Elon’s campus or nearby during the institute, with larger morning sessions with visiting scholars along with the opportunity for one-on-one sessions or small group sessions in the afternoons. Participants are coming at the topic from a variety of disciplines, including art history, theater arts, political science, sociology, criminology and philosophy. The discussions have centered around five central themes — embodiment and vulnerability; consent and its limits; the role of the state in sexual violence; power, inequality and justice; and globalism, localism and difference. 

Those themes as they emerged from foundational texts in the field were outlined in the application for the NEH grant, and helped determine the visiting scholars for the institute, Cahill said. “I was letting the literature dictate those themes, and those themes helped identify the visiting scholars who would work best,” she said. 

Having international representation — Louise du Toit from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and Nicola Gavey from the University of Auckland in New Zealand — was a key component to the institute, Cahill said. “These are experts whom U.S. scholars haven’t had much access to,” Cahill said. “They’ve read their work, but they haven’t been able to interact with them personally.”

Cahill anticipates the institute to bear fruit in multiple ways during the next five to 10 years, such as journal articles, books and conferences, with the connections made among the participants and visiting scholars a key component. The institute has offered the opportunity to introduce the participants to Elon — with nearly two dozen staying in Elon residence halls during their time here, and the institute using spaces including Belk Pavilion and the Sklut Hillel Center. 

“People have been so complimentary of the grounds, buildings and workspaces,” Cahill said. “It’s fascinating to see how the infrastructure can create community and make the work we’ve been doing during the past two weeks possible.”