RCGV member talks research and winning Graduate Student of the Year
By Audrey Matusz
In 2016, when Morgan E. PettyJohn was finishing her master’s at Oklahoma State University, she noticed an unusual phenomenon among her clients. She observed her female–survivor clients were experiencing flairs of PTSD, anxiety and depression during the 2016 presidential campaign. When a tape recording leaked of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting about how he can “do anything” to women, the #MeToo movement became a household name. Fascinated by social media’s influence on the sexual assault zeitgeist, Morgan pursued a PhD at Michigan State University to focus on sexual assault prevention and how media coverage can impact survivors.
Morgan is currently a doctoral candidate in the department of Human Development and Family Studies and a member of RCGV. With a background in Couple and Family Therapy, Morgan arrived to MSU eager to reframe her academic objectives to incorporate a prevention lens when addressing systems of oppression.
“MSU was one of the only institutions in my field where faculty were doing the work that I was interested in, namely Dr. Heather McCauley, who brought me here all the way from Texas,” Morgan said. “Historically, my field has fallen behind in terms of gender-based violence, so I’m hoping by coming here that I might be able to build more of a bridge between our field and thinking about prevention work with a clinical lens.”
In February, Morgan was one of eight 2020 Inspirational Women of the Year awardees selected by the Center for Gender in Global Context. She was nominated for Graduate Student Leader of the Year by Dr. Heather McCauley for her work as a research assistant at President Stanley’s Expert Advisory Workgroup for RVSM. According to the GenCen website, the sixth annual award ceremony recognizes women and femme-identifying individuals who embody “integrity, leadership, quality performance, integrative and inclusive action and influence” in their communities.
Moving toward institutional change
During the 2017 Spring semester at MSU, news headlines echoed across Michigan about the complacent culture allowing former MSU and USA Olympic doctor Larry Nassar to prey on young, female athletes for nearly 20 years. At the same time, Morgan was in Oklahoma making plans for her Spartan dreams, nearly impervious to the press coverage and discussions surrounding Michigan State’s campus. However, by the time she had settled into her new northern digs, it became clear to her the important (and at times harmful) role media can play in a survivor’s healing process.
Since coming to MSU, Morgan has interviewed survivors between the ages of 18-34 on their experiences with social media. Although Morgan says she is “very early” in her data collection, she already can point to several examples of how online discussions can inhibit their healing process. Morgan described the internal torment experienced by survivors, many who have not disclosed their status, when they see relatives use victim blaming language on their personal social media accounts.
“For example, an uncle may post an article about the Kavanaugh Hearings and add his commentary like ‘How could they be trying to ruin this man’s life’ or something else along those lines,” Morgan said. “This is one of the biggest things I’ve seen so far in the interviews.” .
The use of hashtag activism post-2016 presidential election
In Fall of 2017, during Morgan’s first year as a doctoral student at MSU, she teamed up with Dr. McCauley to conduct research on social media conversations happening around the #MeToo movement.The result was a qualitative analysis capturing 3,187 tweets containing the hashtag “#HowIWillChange.”
#HowIWillChange, originated from a tweet by Benjamin Law, an Australian journalist, calling men to take action after the fallout of news outing Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial abuser. #MeToo was used nearly 500,000 times “in just the first 24 hr after the Weinstein story broke.” Many of these instances involved users declaring their survivor status or sharing their story.
Analyzing hashtag activism is a growing tool for researchers to pull a broader sense of attitudes on certain issues. In Morgan’s case, she was looking specifically for how men were aligning (or distancing) themselves with the anti-sexual assault movement.
“We organized [the tweets] into three big categories and smaller subcategories,” Morgan said. “The three big categories were: first, tweets that used the hashtag proactively, as it was intended. The second was men who were indignanty resistant to change, those with the #NotAllMen perspective, that recognized violence against women occurred but didn’t think they had any responsibility in offering solutions.”
The third subcategory of tweets denied “[rape culture] existed or promoted violence against women,” she added.
As a Couple and Family Therapist with a preventive lens, Morgan said that all men have a significant role to play in addressing gender-based violence.
“My biggest takeaway from that study was we really need to be thinking about that middle group, the ones that recognize that violence takes place but don’t see it as their responsibility,” Morgan said. “They are a good target to think about where boys are today in our society and how masculinity is being framed.”
Living her learning
As she compiles information to defend her dissertation, Morgan is completing a specialization in Women and Gender studies. One of her favorite experiences from this specialization was course content on eco-feminism. While she said she will likely not include environmentalism into her core research, having her eyes opened to the subject has led to other initiatives.
In February, Morgan wrapped up a month-long sustainability competition, called February for Future, which she started with colleagues in the Human Development and Family Studies department. She said she was inspired by environmentalists like Greta Thunberg and “Fridays for Future” — walk outs which occurred at schools across the globe to bring awareness to climate change. Morgan’s competition enlisted students and faculty in the HDFS department to implement a series of low-impact practices into their daily lives.
“It was just a pdf with a list of daily, sustainable actions. For example, one action is going a day without meat and dairy, because we know that those two food industries are the some of the largest pollutants,” Morgan said.
Participants earned points for their actions and received gift baskets comprising eco-friendly materials. However, Morgan said the real goal was to emphasize tenants of eco-feminism.
“A big tenet of eco-feminism is that women’s bodies bear the brunt of environmental toxins and the negative impacts of climate change. Women tend to be exposed to more harmful chemicals in day-to-day activities, and our bodies often retain more of these toxins because of our higher fat cell content.” she said.
With the competition over, Morgan is staying focused on her primary objective and collecting survivors’ stories for her dissertation research.
“The recruitment stage for my study has been a bit of a struggle, which is often typical for this type of work,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage for survivors to come forward and talk about their story (even confidentially as it is with this study), especially with a researcher who is a total stranger.”
While the task has proven to be a challenge, Morgan believes since joining RCGV she has learned that no feat, when it comes to research, is too big to tackle.
“There are so many amazing people, especially in RCGV, who’ve I’ve been able to surround myself with or learn from them from afar. I enjoy seeing how they pursue questions and don’t shy away from how daunting and intimidating these issues on gender-based violence can be.”
If you or someone you know is a survivor and would be interested in participating in Morgan’s study, get in contact with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.