Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Cybill Rights (a pseudonym) works with victims of sexual and intimate partner violence domestically and abroad. She also teaches about victimology to students and justice professionals.
As a criminologist who studies sexual violence in colleges, I was surprised by the way that universities implemented changes in response to Title IX legislation over the past few years. Title IX is part of a U.S. civil rights law, created in the early 1970s to address discrimination on the basis of sex in public education. Title IX also deals with sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence, as those actions impede a person’s (usually girls’ and women’s) opportunity to receive a quality education. Public universities must be in compliance with Title IX in order to receive public funding.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in response to Title IX complaints. The letter seemed promising, as it began with research on how often sexual assault is perpetuated in college (which is often), and then provided very detailed suggestions on how to confront sexual harassment and assault. I agree with some of the letter’s suggestions and disagree with others. My main issue with the changes is that universities interpret and/or implement them in ways that go against the knowledge and research on sexual violence.
Scholarly literature continuously asserts that sexual assault is a crime of power. Sexual assault takes away a victim’s power and agency. To assist with healing, we need to affirm survivors’ agency and re-empower them. And we do so by creating an environment wherein the person who experiences sexual assault feels safe and is able to make their own choices.
What does re-empowering a person who was sexually assaulted look like? In advocacy-based programs, re-empowerment entails an advocate listening to victims and speaking on their behalf, but not making decisions for them. It is about providing the person with options and letting them chose their own path to healing. They need to make both big and small choices, and often it is best to start small, such as preference for a meal.
Then, of course, there are the bigger choices regarding the incident, such as whom they choose to tell. They may or may not choose to tell the authorities (e.g., law enforcement). They may choose to report it to the university officials as opposed to the campus or local police. Here is where it gets tricky within the recent Title IX changes, namely the issue of mandatory reporting.
Mandatory reporting requires many university employees (including professors, staff members and resident advisers) to report if a student tells them about an incident of sexual assault. Institutions define slightly differently which incidents must be reported, but one thing seems consistent: the employee must provide the name of the student who disclosed being raped or sexual assaulted to the Title IX coordinator or someone of equal position.
This means that the choice as to whom the student tells their story is taken away from them. Their agency in that regard is essentially removed.
In addition to removing the students’ agency (read: disempowering them), mandatory reporting yields another set of concerns. The sexual assault victim often makes their initial disclosure to someone whom they trust. On college campuses, that can range from a friend to a professor. It is less common for it to be an authority figure, such as an officer or an administrator.
Research suggests that the first person a victim of sexual assault tells is extremely important. If that person believes them and is supportive, it facilitates the victim’s healing. A positive, empathetic response from the listener is paramount.
But mandatory reporting is not training employees to respond empathetically or even to engage in active listening. It is a requirement for employees to report someone else’s personal information, a potentially painful, traumatizing and embarrassing incident.
Here, the criticism of this policy can then be extended to a broader criticism of the university in that it tends to be liability focused rather than student focused. Mandatory reporting supports the notion that the employee is liable if they choose not to or fail to report. Depending on institution and the position of the employee, they may have little protection from censure. Of course, it could be argued that it is meant to protect students, but that is a paternalistic perspective that is not necessarily supported by extant research.
Suggestions for Re-Empowering Victims
What is the best course of action to make Title IX policies genuinely student focused, then? I offer the following suggestions for policy makers and universities based on my research on sexual violence.
- Allow anonymous reporting. University employees should still be expected to report any disclosed sexual violence, but they should not be required to mention names if the victims prefer to remain anonymous. That protects students’ agency. It is their choice to whom they tell their story, but the university could still gauge the prevalence of sexual assaults on the campus on an aggregate level.
- Train all professors, staff members and other employees (including Title IX coordinators) how to respond appropriately. That includes how to listen actively to sexual violence stories and to reject victim blaming and rape myths. They do not need to become victim advocates, per se, but their institutions should train them to respond empathetically. Universities should also provide them with a list of resources to give to the student who has been sexually assaulted. This information would include the Title IX coordinator and information about that office, but it would be a victim’s choice if they want to go the formal route.
- Inform and support a student who formally reports a sexual assault about the process. Universities should administer anonymous or at least confidential surveys to the people who report. They could ask them how they felt they were treated during the process or if they felt justice was done. They can ask if they felt listened to and believed. They could ask them about what programs and policies they would like to see on the campus. From a procedural-justice perspective, victims feel better about the outcome when they are informed and involved in the process.
- Focus on creating a campus culture that encourages students to come forward when sexually assaulted. Universities should create more safe spaces where students can express themselves freely and without judgment or recourse.
These are but a few of the ideas that are research supported. There are more — regarding the legal processes that are currently in place at universities — but that is for another post. To conclude, it is my hope that we can create an inclusive campus culture for all genders, which is what Title IX originally intended.