It was deeply moving to hear President Barack Obama tell victims of campus sexual assaults, “I’ve got your back.” Survivors of sexual violence often encounter disbelief — especially from those authorities meant to protect them, like law enforcement officials and college administrators, according to reports filed by college students. Euphemistic language like “non-consensual sex” replaces “assault,” and victims field questions like “Are you sure it was rape?” On January 25, President Obama announced the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. What prompted this? The President credited “an inspiring wave of student-led activism, and a growing number of students who found the courage to come forward and report attacks…and we owe all these brave young people an extraordinary debt of gratitude.” I know exactly who those brave young people are. I myself am a tiny cog in the collective efforts that brought the campus sexual assault “epidemic” to the President’s attention.
Ninety percent of campus rapes will be perpetrated by acquaintances. However, as a 2007 study reports, only 12 percent of college rape survivors will report their experience to law enforcement authorities. Activism surrounding campus sexual assault intensified in 2012, as students filed Title IX complaints against Yale, Swarthmore, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Amherst, Occidental, and others. Title IX is part of the U. S. Education Amendments of 1972, a law best known for prohibiting the exclusion of women from university athletics. But Title IX protection includes the right to an education free from sexual violence, since this obviously hinders a person’s education — illegal under Title IX.
With this protection in mind, students started the “IX Network” (IX spoken as “nine”), a Facebook group which evolved into several groups: for campus assault survivors of color, LGBTQ survivors, survivors of intimate partner violence, and others. Because of anti-violence organizing I did at the University of Maryland, where I was an undergraduate — Lauren Redding and I successfully petitioned the university senate to mandate sexual assault prevention education for all incoming students — I was invited into this umbrella group. Through Hillel, I also started a Jewish feminist group — JFem — that hosted programs on the meaning of consent, and text study on sexual assault in the Torah and Talmud.
A “Know Your IX” campaign (at knowyourix.org) educates about student rights and university responsibilities under this law. If sexual assault does occur, universities have a responsibility to address the needs of the survivor swiftly. In the past, reports reveal, victims of campus sexual assault were “counseled” to take time off from their studies to recover, and suffered consequences of the assault psychologically, physically and professionally, whereas their assaulters seldom found their academic trajectory or future careers impeded. In the past, the Department of Education has failed to punish a university for institutional violations, so a Know Your IX campaign, ED Act Now, last year delivered a petition with over 175,000 signatures to the Department of Education, demanding enforcement.
Ali Safran, a senior at Mt. Holyoke, is hopeful. “I think the White House Task Force has made great first steps in reaching out for survivor input, mainly through online listening sessions and the ability to submit questions to the Task Force via email. I hope they take the survivors’ stories seriously.”