I like to believe that most people want sexual violence to end. In fact, even if we aren’t survivors of sexual assault ourselves, we all know, and likely love, someone who is. Sexual violence is so prevalent that it’s statistically impossible for it to not be that way. But at a time when our country is led by a man who has been credibly accused, again and again, of being a sexual predator, we’re seeing a dangerous divisiveness surrounding this issue and with it, the unraveling of legal protections and support for survivors.
As we all bear witness to ongoing attempts to end schools’ accountability for sexual violence, we need to step up and fight back.
The Trump administration has worked since 2017 to remove protections for survivors of sexual violence and create special rights for rapists under Title IX, a civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination under education programs receiving federal funding. In September 2017, Trump-appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, removed necessary policies about preventing sexual violence and protecting survivors and replaced them with discriminatory and confusing guidance. It was so bad that my organization, the National Women’s Law Center, sued DeVos over this. Last week, the court heard oral arguments on the merits of our case.
A year later, in November 2018, DeVos proposed changes to existing Title IX rules that would make schools less safe by forcing them to ignore many reports of sexual harassment and to create processes that would unfairly advantage students accused of rape. These proposed rules are so egregious that educational institutions raised concerns about how they would make it difficult for schools and colleges to respond fairly and effectively to sexual violence. So one must wonder: Whose interests is DeVos really catering to if civil rights advocates, mental health professionals, student affairs professionals, school superintendents, and colleges and universities don’t support the proposed rules? It seems to be the interests of those facing consequences for sexual assault.
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But the Trump administration hasn’t stopped there in its attack on survivors of sexual violence. In addition to placing Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault or misconduct, on the U.S. Supreme Court, this administration has also nominated rape apologists as federal judges. Just this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee is voting on the administration’s nominee Steven Menashi to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As DeVos’ former acting general counsel at the Department of Education, Menashi was involved in weakening Title IX protections for survivors. The message this sends to students is that it doesn’t matter if you were sexually assaulted—this administration cares more about protecting rapists than ending sexual violence.
Many “men’s rights” extremists have heard—and are responding quite aggressively to—this administration’s calls to prioritize rapists over survivors. Often privileged and wealthy, college men accused of rape have been suing schools to demand special rights over survivors, and suing survivors who speak up to silence them. Some of their deep-pocketed parents have advocated on their behalf to pass laws requiring hostile and traumatic processes for campus sexual assault complaints, and others have advocated with the Department of Education. Quite disturbingly, they’re pushing the national conversation to focus on the impact of being accused of rape on college men’s education and futures, even though the majority of reported sexual assaults do not lead to suspensions or expulsions of accused students.
In fact, most assaults are not reported. Even so, we know that sexual assault in schools is a crisis. A recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) found that about one in four undergraduate women say they were sexually assaulted during their years in college, up from about one in five from the last survey AAU conducted in 2015.
At the National Women’s Law Center, we represent survivors in Title IX lawsuits and work with survivor advocates all over the country. We know how the kinds of narratives and actions perpetuated by sexist extremists deter survivors from speaking out and getting support.
Rather than continue to be sidetracked by extremists, those of us who care about students need to focus on the impact of this crisis on student survivors, who often experience post-traumatic stress or depression, drop out of school, are urged to leave school until their assailants graduate, or are expelled for lower grades in the wake of trauma after being assaulted. Or how too many survivors—particularly girls of color, and especially Black girls—are ignored when they report harassment or even punished and suspended by their schools for being sexually assaulted. And that many school employees fail student survivors, allowing the hostile educational environment for survivors to fester, because they haven’t been trained about Title IX and responding appropriately to sexual harassment.
This demands that we defend against attempts to end accountability for sexual violence and protect students’ civil rights.
To protect students, schools should invest in prevention and consent education and training for school employees and students about Title IX and the rights of students who are sexually harassed.
To protect students, schools must take student sexual harassment complaints seriously, make sure students can learn in safe and supportive environments, and have fair investigations and hearings.
And to protect students, we all need to tell our congressional representatives now to stop Trump from putting more rape apologists—like Steven Menashi—on the judicial bench. These nominees will, undoubtedly in the face of increased and targeted legal action by extremists, have the ability to shape civil rights protections for all students and degrade Title IX.
The Trump administration will one day end, but the impact of its policies will last for only as long as we allow them to.