Research at Drew: Dr. Jill Cermele

by Violet Wallerstein

Dr. Jill Cermele is a psychology professor here at Drew. Her research focuses on understanding women’s self-defense. Dr. Cermele is currently working on researching the ways in which assault occurs online, how it can be prevented and how it can be interpreted.

Recently, Dr. Cermele has been investigating the most effective methods of preventing sexual assault. The CDC has various levels of prevention for all health-related issues, including primary prevention which is stopping the problem before it happens, secondary prevention which limits the effects by administering treatment early on and tertiary prevention which aims to lessen the impacts. The CDC says that primary prevention of sexual assault is about attitude change and teaching bystander intervention, while it lists self-defense as secondary prevention. In her work, Dr. Cermele argues that self-defense intervenes at the same point in time and is more effective at stopping assault than other methods of prevention. The data shows that bystander training does not change behavior, but teaching self-defense lowers the number of attempted assaults and completed assaults, as well as reduces the trauma symptoms after the fact.

Part of Dr. Cermele’s research is addressing how this is implemented and the training that is provided. It is easier and cheaper to show videos about prevention rather than hosting expensive self-defense seminars, but the outcomes are worthwhile.

She also talks about how the different types of prevention are gendered in her work. While anyone can be a bystander and intervene, it plays off the “knight in shining armour” trope where women, especially those who are being assaulted, need someone else to intervene. Self-defense training and empowering the woman is negatively perceived in these situations.

Dr. Cermele elaborated on that when talking about issues with her research projects and academic backlash. She has had difficulty in sending out manuscripts that are constantly rejected and resisted by people who are vested in the bystander model. Some people are concerned that self-defense is victim blaming, but the argument Dr. Cermele uses is that it is not a “have to,” just an option that can be used. After self-defense training, participants who have experienced sexual assault in the past have less self-blaming than when they began. Individuals do not experience self-defense as a victim-blaming experience but rather as empowering. Dr. Cermele sees this directly in the collages her students make after they complete the course.

Currently, Dr. Cermele is working on a project about cyber rape. Now there are more violations taking place in the cyber world with technology making it possible for assaults to be made online. There are many different actions that fall into this category such as hacking and taking control of someone’s avatar, cyberstalking, revenge porn and posting photos without consent. Legal discussions have taken place discussing what the crime and damages are. Theorists are talking about how online identity is part of actual identity, as well as that while it is happening online, it is still a real crime to a physical person. It is argued that the consequences of cyber assaults have the same or similar consequences as assaults in the physical world. It also puts out fear of real world repercussions such as stalking turning into real stalking/rape and people recognizing you from nude photos.

Part of the research involves looking at cyber rape in terms of computers and data being confiscated. There is a gendered component to online assault: it is more likely to be women that are targeted, and men are targeted in heteronormative ways such as being targeting for being or acting gay.

There’s also a component of what resistance to online attacks looks like and how advised resistance is gendered. For women, it’s “do not be on social media and post revealing photos,” etc., which is similar to other real life rape “advice” about avoiding being alone, not wearing revealing clothes and not having too much to drink. Dr. Cermele is working on how we can apply productive and unproblematic ways of talking about this topic as well as what the data about self-defense says to online safety.  

Dr. Cermele began practicing self-defense in 1998, and it became part of her research in 2000. She states,“I’ve looked at women’s resistance to violence and the efficacy of the program, clinical populations, as well as people’s perception of women’s use of self-defence and it’s clear that it makes us uncomfortable. We’ve moved into looking at the cultural responses, rape responses and education programs to see how it’s understood by institutions not just individuals. When we think about the cyber rape it takes it to another level on how you see it on the cyber level in comparison to the real world.”

Her favorite part of this research is when people have that “aha” moment, whether it happens in self-defense class, during self-defense graduation or when people come back and tell success stories. She enjoys that the research allows her to look at these stories through a scientific lense and find data to support it.

Dr. Cermele’s office is room 202 in Hannan House, and she teaches the psychology preceptorial, stress and coping, abnormal psychology, diagnosis and the DSM, gender violence and women’s resistance and critiquing the mass marketing of psychology. Stop by to hear more about the classes she teaches or her research!

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