Examining institutional responses to campus sexual violence

This week in North Philly Notes, the co-editors of Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses address the state of rape accusations on college campuses under the current administration, and why we need to redouble our efforts to eliminate sexual violence.

As the editors of Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses, we thought we were prepared for what a new White House and Federal administration would mean for institutional responses to sexual violence against college students. The progress over the last several years has been palpable, especially given the confluence of student and survivor activism, policy enactments, expanding assessment and etiology research, as well as institutions of higher education’s significant efforts to improve their responses to victims and innovative prevention efforts. Given indicators that the new administration would not maintain the course of the previous one, in the months after the election we discussed with each other what the possible impact could be. Perhaps reduced funding for the Department of Education, a contraction of the number of investigations by the Office for Civil Rights, and/or a redefinition of the current interpretation of Title IX. All of these situations would remove the burden and promise of institutional Title IX responses to campus violence. These concerns led us to wonder in the Preface of our book, that if Title IX was redefined via a new “Dear Colleague” letter, what could be the future of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act—repeal, strip funding, or fail to enforce? If any of these changes occurred, we posited, the corresponding effects on institutions of higher education, and more importantly their students, would be substantial.

Addressing Violence on College Campuses_smWe are now on the brink of the changes we feared, when the progress anti-violence scholars, activists and legislators have made might begin to crumble under the weight of the new, shifting narrative created by the Department of Education. As the stage is set for sweeping policy dismantling, there emerges a narrative of women as falsely accusing men, rape as “drunken sex,” and the reporting of sexual violence as women changing their minds about “our last sleeping together was not quite right.” This rhetoric, along with the narrative that presumes that only women are raped, is disheartening as it negates all of the work survivors, activists, and academics have done to address violence against all genders. We are dismayed—nay, angered—that those responsible for enforcing regulations on violence on college campuses, such as Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, would assert, publicly, a victim-blaming discourse. She not only discounts victims’ voices but also endorses an understanding of offenders as victims too, making survivors and the schools that try to hold the offenders accountable the “real” perpetrators. Bringing “claims” of rape or adjudicating such claims is to discriminate, the logic goes.

This shift in defining who our government must protect in cases of sexual assault is possible because rape itself—at least according to Ms. Jackson—is no longer the rape that activists defined and legislators later codified in sexual assault legislation, but rather the mere imaginings of a college woman recovering from drunken sex. Though Ms. Jackson later apologized for what she termed a “flippant” remark, the problem is that this remark reifies the victim-blaming culture within which survivors already must try to seek justice. Now, though, they must do so under official federal endorsement of a narrative in which women have regrettable sex and then men are falsely accused. The data, as presented in Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses, does not support this narrative. But of course there has long been rape deniers and widespread endorsement of rape myths (including the oft-repeated belief that rape victims lie) in our society. We did not imagine, however, that our government officials appointed to address sexual violence would publicly endorse such beliefs in this day and age.

We therefore join the call of the 50 organizations who recently demanded that Ms. Jackson reject her own comments publicly and consistently, as Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz wrote about in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on July 20, 2017. And, in the face of Ms. Jackson’s comments, we need college administrators to continue to push their campuses to “do the right thing.” They must do everything that have been striving to do to prevent, respond to, and adjudicate violence, which may involve rejecting a call from the administration for reduced enforcement in the future. We also call upon college students to accelerate their incredible efforts to change the social climate on college campuses and directly confront and reject victim-blaming narratives.

Our concern for what will happen under this current administration—as researchers and women—is growing.  But we also believe in the power of many to eliminate violence against women. Historically, legislation about violence against women has followed from the tireless efforts of activists. We encourage students, faculty, and officials of institutions of higher education to be those activists that refuse to see harm done to college students on college campuses.

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