Every College Has Someone Whose Job It Is To Prevent Rape. Here’s What They Have To Say About The Job.

CREDIT: Matt Radick via Flicker Creative Commons

On the 42nd anniversary of the federal gender equity law Title IX, U.S. universities face a rape crisis.

Title IX began as an equalizer in athletic scholarships and as a protection for pregnant students. In 2011, an addendum to Title IX called the Dear Colleague Letter specified sexual assault as a type of sex-based discrimination — so now, if a college has a sexual assault problem, it has a Title IX problem.

It was also in 2011 that my alma mater Marquette University mishandled multiple rape cases in one year. I spent the next two years researching and learning about this issue from experts on U.S. college campuses. I road tripped from state to state, advocate to advocate, to see how other universities address sexual assault. All in all, I visited 39 universities across 19 states to interview sexual violence prevention and response advocates — a job description that Title IX now requires to fall on the plate of at least one staff member on college campuses.

The stories from these interviews cannot be what the Department of Education envisioned when it enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The advocates told me, loud and clear, that sexual assault isn’t just a problem about perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. It is a problem with how universities choose to operate.

Consider one advocate who has been working at a public institution for over four years. She is one of two staff members working on preventing sexual violence for a student body of over 42,000 students. Full-time staff is imperative, not just for the workload, but also for the separate skill sets required to prevent sexual assault (through cultural and behavioral change) versus to respond to instance of sexual assault (through victim services). But although her institution has two paid jobs for prevention work, the university does not give her office a budget.

“When I say we have no budget, it means that I have to ask for every penny I spend… what I did for most of my first four years here was just going to every campus office I could think of and raising a hundred dollars here and six hundred there,” she said.

With the emergence of the corporate university, how a higher education institution distributes resources — in the shape of salaries, time, employees, office budgets, office space — illustrates the priorities of that institution. Can you imagine a football coach begging a university for a baseline budget?

On top of financial strains, these advocates are essentially straddling an institutional divide. How can they remain loyal to a university while trying to push for it to change? And how can they challenge the current policies without biting the hand that feeds them?

“Advocates walk a fine line right in the middle,” one explained. “One day everyone’s loving you… And the next day, they’re upset because you’re challenging them.”

“The university [says] ‘We must have the sexual violence expert’ — and then they kind of pull me in and push me away at the same time… it’s sort of scary,” another recounted.

When advocates detailed the power dynamics between them and administration, they sometimes even used language one might find in the description of a sexual assault, such as “hands being tied.” Many university-based advocates can’t even speak publicly about their solutions because of fear of retribution from their employers.

If one of the roots of violence is an imbalance of power, then how does one make sense of the practically innate imbalance of power present in university hierarchies? Through my interviews across dozens of college campuses, I came up with a few potential policy solutions:

1. Mandate that university presidents and administrators are systematically educated on gender issues, bystander intervention, and behavioral change training — a necessity to make the resourcing decisions that prevent and adequately respond to sexual assault on campus.

2. Hold administrators accountable, via salary and employment, if they obstruct prevention and response attempts.

3. Give university gender equality advocates institutional power: a budget, a seat at the table where campus decisions are made, full-time staff, a visible location on campus, and quality time with students.

4. Create collaborative versus financially punitive solutions to Title IX infringements. Universities need more financial resources to address the topic on campus, not less.

We hear the statistic “one in five women will experience sexual assault in college” and cringe. We hope, and sometimes even argue, that college simply can’t be that dangerous. We can preach to our students all we want about gender equality in women’s studies courses, even as we build gender resource centers — but until these values and policies are implemented within the university’s operations themselves, we will not be truly addressing the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses.

We will still be failing to uphold Title IX 42 years later.

This piece was co-written by Katie Dunn.

Molly Arenberg works for Blue State Digital, an international media strategy and technology firm that places progressive values at the core of its work. She has a BA in psychology from Marquette University and an MPhil in Geography from the University of Oxford.

Katie Dunn is a policy analyst at DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, a advocacy coalition that represents at-risk youth and their service-providers in the District of Columbia. She has a BA in psychology from the University of Notre Dame and a MSc in criminology from the University of Oxford.