In the fall of 2003, in the second week of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, my close friend went to a party where she was drugged, carried upstairs, tied up and gang-raped by two male students. I was supposed to be there that night, and it has haunted me ever since that I wasn’t. She didn’t report the assault to the administration, and decided not to press charges because she’d seen what other survivors went through when they came forward: re-traumatizing court cases and public shaming in the press. Our welcome to college, our first lesson, provided a different education than the one we had signed up for. Over my next four undergraduate years, thirteen of my friends were sexually assaulted on college campuses across the country. Not a single one of those friends received “justice.”
Progress, However Halting
In the years since my enrollment at U-M, much has changed, some of it certainly for the better. While many of us have heard about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who raped an unconscious classmate next to a dumpster, and both U-M and MSU have experienced high-profile scandals where the careers of athletes were prioritized over the physical and emotional safety of their victims (see Brendan Gibbons at U-M), awareness of rape culture and sexual violence on campuses has definitely increased. Pressure from the Obama Administration to take the issue seriously drove many universities to develop policies, protocols, trainings and support groups.
Currently, an American woman who attends college is more likely to be a victim of sexual assault than a woman who does not attend college. – endrapeoncampus.org
According to a report issued by U-M’s Office for Institutional Equity in October of 2016, “U-M made several changes to its sexual misconduct policy that went into effect in July 2016, including expanding the definitions of unwanted conduct to include gender-based harassment, intimate violence and stalking, and providing a clearer picture surrounding consent. It also made procedural changes to ensure a fair process and enhance transparency for claimants, respondents and witnesses. In addition, U-M and MSU each created Special Victims Units within their campus police departments that should result in better evidence-gathering and more sensitive treatment of victims.”
More work to be done
Still, when asked if she felt safe on campus, a female spring 2017 U-M grad who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “I don’t really feel safe regarding rape culture. Some campus communities, such as the Co-Ops, are great with ensuring that people remain safe and consensual. However, some communities could improve by making sure they explicitly create a culture around consent at their events.”
A culture shift seems most possible with simultaneous efforts of students from the ground up, and the University administration. U-M’s Sexual Assault Prevention And Awareness Center (SAPAC,) has over 150 student volunteers who facilitate trainings and provide peer-led support groups for survivors. According to interim director Nadia Bazzy, “During September and October, all [undergraduate] students are required to attend an in-person, interactive, peer-led workshop about healthy relationships led by students from SAPAC and Wolverine Wellness in their residence hall. In October and November, all students are required to attend an an-person, interactive, theater-based workshop on how to intervene safely and effectively in harmful situations. All these efforts are part of UM’s comprehensive sexual violence prevention plan and help set the tone for students to continue to build a healthy, respectful, inclusive campus.”
Risk of Moving Backward
Unfortunately, The Trump administration, appears to see the issue differently.
On July 13th, Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, held a series of “listening sessions” around campus sexual assault. Although experts say only 8% of sexual assault allegations on campuses turn out to be false, DeVos invited equal numbers of representative speakers from groups of students wrongly accused and sexual assault survivors. She also invited several men’s rights groups to share their views. According to Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, “Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sent a letter to DeVos criticizing the decision to meet with representatives from groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls ‘misogynist’ and said it is ‘a slap in the face to the victims of campus sexual assault.’”
DeVos has not promised to protect sexual assault survivors and LGBTQ students under Obama’s Title IX guidance. In fact, the GOP platform calls for weakening Title IX enforcements. Candice Jackson, appointed by DeVos as the top civil rights official at the Department of Education, came under fire recently for comments she later apologized for that “the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last time sleeping together was not quite right.’”
Where Do We Go From Here?
In response to a question about the potential downsizing of Title IX protections at a recent standing-room-only town hall on women’s issues in Scio Township, State Senator Rebekah Warren (D) declared, “this is very troubling… if our top officials who are held responsible for enforcement are saying 90% of them are either made up or somebody who regrets a decision they made the night before, how do you ever get women or men to come forward when they’ve been victims of sexual violence?”
US Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D) added, “the Women’s Bipartisan Caucus has [written] letters to Secretary DeVos about Title IX…we are going to make sure we protect women when it comes to violence of any form. We need to, as women, make our voices loud and strong.”
SAPAC believes all genders must speak up, not just women. “Sexual assault,” its directors say,” is the responsibility of all community members to address.”
For readers who want to learn more, SAPAC suggested visiting their website (sapac.umich.edu) and supporting the following organizations and campaigns: SafeHouse Center (safehousecenter.org,) Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (mcedsv.org,) and the Start by Believing Campaign (startbybelieving.org.) To learn more specifically about Title IX and ways to maintain its protections, visit: endrapeoncampus.org/dearbetsy.