Leveling the Playing Field and the Defense of Title IX


Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

I knew. I just knew. When I heard Betsy DeVos was going to make an announcement about the Department of Education’s new approach to Title IX enforcement relating to sexual assault, she didn’t need to utter the words for me to know the fragile progress made since 2011 was in grave danger of breaking.

For 14 years, I have been building programs and supporting survivors on college campuses. My work began long before the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) affirmed sexual violence was a violation of Title IX. Prior to the DCL, a survivor’s rights were barely an afterthought in many campus conduct proceedings.

The 2011 DCL meant the federal government had finally taken notice, and most importantly, action, regarding the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. However, despite this, deep down we all knew the DCL’s mandate to treat survivors equally in campus conduct processes would always be at risk.

Let me be very clear, campus culture and conduct processes have never been fair to survivors and certainly do not privilege their voices now. You can read countless research studies confirming this, or you can watch The Hunting Ground or read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Our culture protects perpetrators of sexual violence every single day. Survivors are called liars--the myth of false reporting DeVos buys into is as old as the sun and has been disproven time and again (in fact, only about 2-8% of rape cases are false reports, the same rate of false reporting for all other felonies)--and survivors are dismissed, bullied, and ridiculed.

In the infinitesimal chance there is a finding of responsibility in a campus conduct process or a criminal conviction in the courts, the perpetrators usually get off with a slap on the wrist. Our culture teaches men, and boys in particular, it is okay and acceptable to force or coerce sexual contact. It’s even encouraged. Push past the no. She’s just playing hard to get. It’s just locker room talk. . . .

While the condemnation and accountability perpetrators now face is mounting, it is far from absolute.

As soon as the DCL mandated campuses create processes to try to level the playing field for sexual assault survivors, alleged perpetrators cried foul. In their view, equality of process and listening to a survivor’s voice in addition to theirs prevents them from doing and getting what they want. Their success is predicated upon survivor silence and an absence of consequence. If you repeatedly attempt or complete sexual contact with someone without their consent, and “suddenly” you are told this isn’t okay, then I guess you feel like your rights are being taken away. But that’s the problem, no one has the right to sexually assault another person. Their rights, real or perceived, are in no way being trampled on by providing survivors with rights, too.

As for DeVos, of course I am not surprised by her thinly veiled support of the perceived wrongfully accused. We must not forget, she was appointed by a man who is knee deep in sexual assault accusations and as Ta-Nehisi Coate’s states is a man who “introduced the phrase ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ into the national lexicon.”

Aida Hurtado, in The Color of Privilege asserts white women abandon their women of color sisters in favor of white men because of a “patriarchal invitation to power.” I see this very same pattern in DeVos’s actions. DeVos has abandoned sexual assault survivors (mostly women and other marginalized group members) and is allying herself with men because it is to a man she owes her position and power. She certainly didn’t get there because of her experience in public education.

Lapping up the sob stories from the (allegedly) overflowing pot of innocents, DeVos has initiated a review of Title IX guidance in the name of equality and fairness. But equality and fairness for whom? Not survivors, that’s for sure. The review spurred by DeVos is seemingly absent any reflective depth about the reality of college campus conduct systems and the still, sometimes overtly, hostile culture present on campuses for survivors of sexual assault. College conduct processes are not “Kangaroo Courts” as she claims so many have described them. They are actually, in most places, a finely-tuned, well-researched, and legally vetted process.

But, broads, please remember: providing survivors with rights in a system that has historically silenced them does not amount to the creation of an unequal process for alleged perpetrators. It’s not a zero sum game. The only thing being taken from these perpetrators is their perceived right to assault and abuse another human without consequence.

When it feels like something you’ve had access to or done all your life is being taken away, the ensuing claim is you are being persecuted. People and groups with unearned privilege use this rhetoric all the time. It’s a persuasive narrative. Individuals with social, political, economic, and cultural power feel entitled to the privileges that come with such power. So much so, they defend it as though it is rightfully theirs. There is no concern for the large swath of individuals who experience the daily oppression required to maintain their position of power. Any attempt to elevate an oppressed group to the same position as those in power is unacceptable. Fairness and equality are not planes on which oppressors are guaranteed a win, and thus fairness and equality cannot be maintained in any real sense.

Public comment on Title IX enforcement and sexual violence on college campuses is open until 9/20/17. Broads, if you want to support survivors, share your thoughts in the public comment forum, and encourage your friends to do so also. It’s crucial we speak out.

Features & NewsVirginia Santy