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It’s a huge problem: According to survey data, 19.9 percent of women, 5.2 percent of men, and 27.5 percent of trans and gender non-conforming students at Harvard reported experiencing sexual assault during their time in college. But if you’ve been reading the news this past week, you might not know it. Recently, Candice Jackson, the head of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, erroneously stated that “90% of campus rape cases fall into the category of we were both drunk,” a claim she walked back (not rescinded) less than 24 hours later. And while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent 90 minutes meeting with sexual violence survivors and advocates, she seems to have been more impressed by her meeting with so-called “men’s rights activists” who regularly harass rape survivors and believe that sexual violence is a hoax targeted at men by malicious women.
DeVos has defended her engagement with fringe groups as listening to all voices. But as anti-sexual violence student activists at Harvard University, we know better: Sexual violence is a major issue of education equity, and Title IX enforcement is essential to combatting it.
At Harvard, students have been protesting against sexual violence since the 1960s. But when our organization, Our Harvard Can Do Better, was formed in 2012, Harvard’s sexual violence policy had not been changed for decades. As a result, survivors were required to prove that they had said “no” or physically resisted their rapists, a standard that made it nearly impossible for survivors to prove their cases. In order to challenge these victim-blaming policies, Our Harvard Can Do Better began to mobilize the student body and call directly upon the University to make changes. But we made little progress—until we invoked Title IX and filed a Title IX complaint. The Department of Education’s enforcement of Title IX empowered us to hold Harvard accountable and to address the real needs of survivors on campus. Title IX has given survivors a voice, and Harvard is listening.
Since our Title IX complaint was opened in 2014, we have seen Harvard take steps toward creating a campus environment that values all members of the community. Harvard has drawn up a new sexual violence policy, hired staff to fill vacant Title IX investigative positions, increased training for students, and hired more prevention staff. All of these changes have been the result of student activism, but our demands gained new strength when we were backed up by federal guidelines.
At a moment where there is so much left to be done, our wins suddenly seem fragile. With a self-proclaimed sexual predator as Commander in Chief, Trump’s White House has committed itself to dismantling protections for student survivors, from slashing Violence Against Women Act grants, selecting a notoriously transphobic figure as the new Senior Advisor to the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, revoking Title IX protections for transgender students and survivors in schools, and declining to investigate the full scope of Title IX complaints in investigations.
The Department’s rollback of Title IX protections for student survivors is a willful misinterpretation of federal law that will have severe consequences for students in K-12 schools and universities. Without enforcement of Title IX, students who experience sexual violence will no longer be given the time and support they need to heal and continue their educations. They will suffer even greater physical and psychological trauma. They may also be forced to drop out of school, accrue debt from mental health counseling and lost semesters, and lose education-related immigration protections as a result. Particularly vulnerable students—LGBTQ survivors, survivors of color, survivors with disabilities, undocumented survivors, and survivors of low socioeconomic status—will be hit the hardest. When the federal government makes it optional for schools to protect the civil rights of students who experience violence, all students lose.
As an organization of survivor activists and allies, we have felt the impact of Title IX firsthand. Some of us experienced harassment and violence during our K-12 education without ever realizing that Title IX existed or could have helped us. Those of us that experienced sexual violence in college have utilized access to trauma support and accommodations to help us stay in school. We have benefited from the discussions of rape culture, consent, and justice that Title IX has helped foster on our campus and in broader society. As activists, Title IX has been an invaluable tool to connect us with other survivors around the country—of all genders and ages, and from all institutions—and hold our schools accountable. It is this national movement that the Trump administration must reckon with if they attempt to turn back the clock on Title IX protections for survivors.
The Trump administration has thus far defined itself by violence against marginalized communities. But in this moment of federal threat, our communities have shown the depths of our commitment to protect one another. We will not be silent, and we will never stop affirming our right to an education free from sexual and gender-based violence.
Even if the Trump administration chooses to misinterpret it, that right is enduring. We will not rest until we see it realized for students across the country.
Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Jessica R. Fournier ’17 is a graduate of Winthrop House living in the Boston area.
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