A 2019 survey from the American Association of Universities revealed that 25.9% of women undergraduate students and 22.8% of trans, genderqueer and nonbinary undergraduate students had faced some form of sexual violence.
This reflects the harsh realities of living on a college campus: a culture where rape and sexual assault have been normalized. Where you cannot walk alone at night. Where you need to cover your drinks at a party. Where you have to carry pepper spray or a rape whistle with you when going out. Where you must make sure to walk your friend to their dorm room. Where you live in constant fear of being sexually harassed, assaulted or raped.
Since the survey I discussed above was conducted, the U.S. Department of Education has radically altered Title IX — the federal civil rights law that seeks to combat sexual harassment and violence — to make the definitions of sexual assault and harassment narrower and to require live hearings where survivors of sexual violence must face their assaulters. This has only made it more difficult to report instances of sexual violence, especially as survivors do not want to (and should not need to) face their assaulters in live hearings. During the 2020 presidential elections, President Biden promised to re-strengthen Title IX and fight for the rights of survivors of sexual violence. While the administration initially placed the deadline to May 2022, it has been constantly pushed back. The latest deadline the administration has instituted being October 2023; however, we are at the end of October, and the Department of Education has nothing to show for itself.
Meanwhile, at the College of Wooster, there have been two official reports of sexual assault, four official reports of sexual harassment and one official report of dating violence and stalking since the semester began. These numbers are concerning since they persist not only in a time where Title IX is weakened nationally, but also in a time where students at the College are facing an array of difficulties. Most recently, Emily Hiner, the Director of Prevention and Advocacy for the Title IX office — and only confidential case manager for Title IX — was terminated prior to the 2023 fall Semester. A part of her role as the Director of Prevention and Advocacy was to act as the confidential campus advocate for students who have experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence, stalking or other forms of harassment. Alongside her role’s dissipation, this semester also marked the transition from the Interim Title IX Coordinator, Joe Hall, to new Title IX Coordinator, Chelsea Polly. Throughout the transition period, the College carelessly failed to update the modification in the range of communication channels in a timely manner, making it harder to contact the Title IX Coordinator.
There is little that survivors of sexual violence can do in a broken system. The bitter reality is that there is impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in campus communities, including our own community at Wooster. All the while, survivors fear harsh consequences from their peers, staff and administration. Even when survivors come forward, their voices are drowned out by those who defend their perpetrators, victim blaming and the minimization of incidents. Without legal and administrative measures to back them up, survivors are left hanging.
The U.S. Department of Education needs to issue new Title IX rules without delay. For most survivors of sexual assault, this is not a matter of electoral politics, it is a lived reality. But it is also the College’s responsibility to ensure that its students feel safe, and that survivors are allowed basic dignity and due process. The College needs to be more transparent on whether or not they are filling the role of Director of Prevention and Advocacy. They need to provide more comprehensive trainings for students which include Title IX, sexual violence and bystander intervention. The College needs to move beyond just federal guidelines to ensure perpetrators of sexual violence cannot continue to act with impunity. All collegiate staff and faculty need to be trained on sexual violence prevention and supporting victims.
Anything less from the school is complicity in rape culture. It is condemning students to live with a constant fear of sexual violence. It is shaming survivors into hiding. It is allowing the few who come forward to be ignored, blamed and marginalized. The Department of Education and the College of Wooster need to do better.