The New Weapon Against Campus Rape

Meet the courageous women who inspired Pres. Obama's task force to combat sexual assault on campus.

Wagatwe Wanjuki, a former student at Tufts University and survivor of sexual assault, addresses a crowd in front of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 2013. (Photo: Lance Rosenfield/Prime)

Nov 11, 2013· 15 MIN READ
Alissa Quart is the author of 'Republic of Outsiders' and two other nonfiction books.

Alexandra Brodsky walked across the Yale University campus to Sheffield Hall, a towering white stone building. She had been summoned there to meet with two members of the university’s Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, after Brodsky had told her resident adviser of something that had happened to her five days earlier, on Saturday night: Brodsky said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. Until that moment, she had thought of her assailant as a friend. In the days since, the young man, a fellow first-year student at the university, was calling and texting her constantly. He had even texted one of Brodsky’s roommates trying to find her. Brodsky says that he was apologizing and trying to get her to meet with him, but she felt harassed and wanted him to stop.

That cold February afternoon in 2009, Brodsky wasn’t seeking justice for the assault. She wanted to meet with the grievance board because she was afraid to encounter the young man in her classes. She also wanted to see what the board could do to restrain his attempts to locate her.

She climbed down the stairs to a basement room, not sure what to expect. Sheffield Hall held a huge, beautiful lecture hall and administrative offices, but downstairs was a little more bleak. Seated on a hard chair, Brodsky told two middle-aged female professors the story of her assault. While she spoke, Brodsky says, she felt a sense of shame, worried that news of the incident would reach others on campus, or that her mom would find out about the one orange-juice-and-vodka she’d had hours before the assault. She had only told one of her roommates and didn’t want to report the incident to the police, though attorneys she would consult later told her she had enough evidence to at least get a restraining order against the young man, Brodsky tells me.

When she stopped speaking, the two professors offered their thoughts. Brodsky recalls their telling her that the young man’s many attempts to contact her were “evidence that he loved me.” They advised her to keep quiet, she says, and discouraged her from pursuing a formal hearing. They explicitly told her not to tell her friends. “They said people would gossip, that I shouldn’t tell my closest friend at the school,” she says now. “They said, ‘You think you can trust her, but if you do, the whole school will know—do you really want that to happen?’ As if that would reflect more poorly on me” than her attacker, Brodsky says. In the basement room, she was hoping there was something the board representatives could do to help her; it didn’t even occur to her to be skeptical of the process.

(Asked about Brodsky’s account of her meeting with the grievance board representatives, Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean of the graduate school and senior deputy Title IX coordinator at Yale, said that she couldn’t speak in specifics about Brodsky’s case as she wasn’t a Title IX rep at the time, but she noted that the system through which Brodsky’s grievance was heard has since been revamped. She also noted that the names of the board members Brodsky met with, or any minutes from the meeting, would have been confidential.)

Brodsky was no shrinking violet. She came to Yale as a straight-A student. She’d been captain of her high school’s cross-country and track teams and on the senior class council. When she heard in high school some shocking statistics of sexual assault on women in college, her response was to try to organize a self-defense workshop. Her mother volunteered at a shelter for domestic abuse victims, so Brodsky had an idea—albeit an abstract one—of what violence against women meant.

“Sexual violence was something that happened to other people,” she says now. Indeed, she couldn’t imagine it happening at one of the world’s elite universities, where families pay up to $58,000 a year to educate their children. Brodsky had dreamed of attending Yale since she was nine. The day she received her acceptance letter as an early applicant, her family drove her up to the campus so she could walk around and soak up the atmosphere. “Yale gave me a dorm room, fed me every day, threw me ice cream parties at night, and was teaching me really exciting things,” Brodsky says. She’d never thought of it as anything less than a formidable place, full of wonder, and she believed it would keep her safe.

Scholars who have studied sexual assault have written for two decades that the response to a trauma by any system, from a family to a university, defines the meaning of an assault. The scholar Sarah Ullman and others have cited the “secondary victimization” that can happen to victims: “Several studies have shown that negative social reactions are related to more psychological symptoms and poorer self-rated recovery in sexual assault victims,” Ullman wrote. It’s sometimes called “secondary victimization,” and Brodsky was living it.

All of Brodsky’s enthusiasm for the school made the walk back to her dorm that cold afternoon a melancholy one. “It was the loneliest I had ever felt,” she says. “The school trivialized my experience, and that trivialization didn’t make the impact of the assault any smaller. It just made me feel crazy.”

When [Yale] told me the assault would hurt my reputation, or I’d face retaliation, I knew that something was ethically fishy. But I didn’t realize what they were doing was illegal.

She thought about a moment sitting before the grievance board members when she saw herself through their eyes. “I shifted from being a student to being a liability,” Brodsky recalls. “We started out as students who take English classes and run clubs and go to parties, and at some point, in the eyes of the administration, we became lawsuit risks,” she says now. She was 18 years old.

It was about two years later, in a class she took at Yale Law School while a junior, that Brodsky learned about Title IX. More than 30 years earlier, the legislation, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 requiring equal treatment for both sexes at schools that receive federal funds, was used to fight campus sex offenses, construing them as a form of educational discrimination.

“I didn’t know at the time of the meeting that they were legally required to help me,” says Brodsky. “When they told me the assault would hurt my reputation, or I’d face retaliation, I knew that something was ethically fishy. But I didn’t realize what they were doing was illegal.” In March 2011, several months after learning about Title IX’s history and connecting with campus feminists who'd been discussing the possibility of a Title IX complaint, Brodsky and 15 other Yale students accused their school of failing to ensure their equal right to education. The level of sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus and the university’s inadequate responses to reports of assault, they maintained, were forms of discrimination as surely as if they’d been denied admission because they were female. Yale University, the women maintained in a press release that they distributed after they filed their complaint, was “a hostile sexual environment.”

When most people hear the phrase “Title IX,” they think of gender equity in college sports. It’s hockey pucks for the girls’ teams as well as the boys’ teams and an equal number of softball scholarships for female players as baseball scholarships for male players. Women who attended college in and after the 1970s may have a personal recollection—after Title IX, their school had to spend proportional scholarship money on men’s and women’s sports teams based on player opportunities, among other requirements. The law led to much-increased participation in women’s sports and also enforced equal schooling opportunities for teenage mothers, among other things.

Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon would later develop the legal theory that sexual harassment or sexual assault could limit a woman’s access to educational opportunity. Plaintiffs in Alexander v. Yale took up this argument in 1977, when they argued that the environment at the school led to a "pattern of sexual harassment"; one student said a professor had given her a worse grade than she deserved after she refused his overtures. Back then, Yale didn’t even have a procedure for lodging official complaints against students for sexual misconduct; the grievance board Brodsky first approached was formed in the wake of that case.

Since then, there have been Title IX complaints concerning sexual harassment or assault, with renewed interest in the legal strategy, and a flurry of filings at a greatly increased rate over the last few years: In 2009, the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education received 11 Title IX sexual misconduct complaints against colleges and universities. In 2013, there were 29. Brodsky has argued that the system Yale set up after Alexander v. Yale for resolving sexual harassment and abuse is still severely flawed, noting in 2011 that none of the three students the school had recently found to have committed sexual assault was expelled. Title IX complainants have included students from Yale, University of Connecticut, University of Southern California, Swarthmore College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tufts University, Occidental College, and other schools.

Young women across the country are now using the weapon in the fight against alarming statistics like the one Brodsky discovered back in high school: Almost one in five women faced at least an attempted sexual assault during her four years in college. Nearly one in five American women will be raped in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; of those raped or sexually assaulted, 44 percent are under 18. Among the general population, fewer rapes were reported in the last 10 years. FBI crime stats say that overall, forcible rape is down 10.1 percent since 2003. On campuses, these improved numbers could be read as a result of 30 years of “Take Back the Night” vigils, awareness raising, volunteer campus escorts, and stepped-up security measures. But rape is still an underreported crime. Young women I interviewed said they feared that going to the police after their assaults wouldn’t achieve much for them, and the numbers bear this out: only 31 percent of the rape or sexual assault victimizations from 2005 to 2010 reported to the police concluded in arrest. Perhaps partly as a result, the percentage of rape or sexual assault victimizations reported to the police declined to 35 percent in 2010, a level last seen in 1995. Some of the experts I spoke with said that a student’s legal case could easily be compromised by the fact that she was drinking or had dated or even known her assailant prior to an assault.

Young women feared that going to the police wouldn’t achieve much for them and the numbers bear this out: only 31 percent of the rape or sexual assault victimizations from 2005 to 2010 reported to the police concluded in arrest.

Thanks to the efforts of women like Brodsky, feminist legal scholars, and advocates, women bringing Title IX complaints have obtained financial settlements and have also demanded systemic change. This includes increased reporting of misconduct (as required by the Clery Act), harsher punishments for assailants, complaint processes that are more user-friendly, and ultimately more awareness on the part of students and faculty about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“As someone working in the field from the 1990s to 2006, there was a little bit of a disconnect between the people doing legal work on Title IX and advocates on campus,” says Susan Marine, the founder of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) and currently a professor at Merrimack College.

In the last two years, though, efforts like Brodsky’s have had a real impact, forcing schools to change how they handle claims or assault as well as their policies or structures for responding to such accusations. A month after Brodsky’s complaint was filed, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent out to colleges and universities a “Dear Colleague” letter providing interpretive guidance on federal policy and hammering home Title IX regulations around sexual misconduct. This was seen as the watershed event that kicked off a larger Title IX movement.

“This activism is unprecedented and very organized,” says Harvard Law School professor Diane Rosenfeld of the efforts of Brodsky and others. Rosenfeld says she’s been working for 10 years on how to leverage Title IX against sexual assault.

“Title IX activism is bringing the world of law and activism together,” says Marine.

“I speak at 10 'Take Back the Night's a year, and it is like homecoming,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, publisher of The Feminist Press and director of the documentary It Was Rape. “There’s new energy around it. It’s a moment of institutional shifts.”

One big force behind creating these shifts, of course, is the Web. Recent events have shown that social media can have both positive and negative effects on movements, as both a key organizing tool and a means for authorities to track down organizers. The Internet has been the same way when it comes to campus sexual assault and the movement that combats it.

The Web has enabled some of what is amorphously dubbed “rape culture.” One of the more notorious examples is the Steubenville, Ohio, rape of a 16-year-old girl by two boys. Thanks to social media, on the evening of the rape, students tweeted about it and posted explicit photos and a video mocking the victim.

For some young women, it has been personally vindicating to use the Web to take control of their experiences of assault and, in their view, their colleges’ inaction. Others have experienced further harassment or humiliation online. Many experience both.

“I think the Internet facilitates these things rather than creates them,” says Brodsky. “People receive rape threats for coming forward talking about rape. You are sharing this intimate story online, and people are posting about whether I am pretty. Going public as a survivor means something very different now: If someone Googles me, they know a scary thing that happened freshman year. It’s a strange way to exist.”

Disconcerting as these stories are, victims have used the Web and social media to share experiences, spread information, and organize their complaints. After Amherst College student Angie Epifano wrote of her rape in her school newspaper, the Web enabled thousands of students around the country to read the story. “On May 25, 2011, I was raped by an acquaintance in Crossett Dormitory on Amherst College campus,” Epifano wrote. “Some nights I can still hear the sounds of his roommates on the other side of the door, unknowingly talking and joking as I was held down. I am sickened by the Administration’s attempts to cover up survivors’ stories, cook their books to discount rapes, pretend that withdrawals never occur, quell attempts at change, and sweep sexual assaults under a rug,” she wrote. Epifano’s coda of institutional critique quickly went viral and was picked up by sites such as Inside Higher Ed and The Huffington Post, garnering thousands more readers. Survivors on the West Coast were emboldened to come forward because of her narrative.

After she made her complaint, Brodsky was able to tap into an informal online network of survivors, activists, professors, and organizers who were sharing their experiences of being assaulted and their feelings of being neglected or victimized a second time by campus administrators. They also shared information about the law and what they were going to do about their situations.

“The Internet is a really important piece of [Title IX organizing],” says Brodsky. “We were all able to connect interschool: [Amherst activist] Dana Bolger and I were put in touch via email. The UNC students got in touch by Facebook. We all communicated via Skype.”

One Swarthmore student who joined the Title IX complaint at that school after she was allegedly harassed on campus property told me she located online and read “a lengthy legal document,” she says, “and I discovered that I have these rights.” (The woman asked that TakePart not publish her name, given the nature of her experience.) Victims of assault now can join a closed Facebook group, Know Your IX. (There’s a Know Your IX open website as well.)

“Ten years ago, you’d think [the assault] was an isolated case, that I just crossed paths with this crazy person,” she says. “But if you are comparing your stories with other people, you see it as a system.”

Ask on campus tours if colleges know what Title IX is,” says Sarah Rankin of MIT. “Ask if there is a place for survivors to go at the college and also what’s the party scene like. Ask yourself, ‘Does it feel comfortable for me here?’

This student and others like her could read things like Brodsky’s analysis, memoirs in Slate and The Huffington Post, and Epifano’s essay. Or the writings of rape survivor Andrea Pino, of the University of North Carolina, about her rage at her college: “[They’d say], ‘We are in compliance,’ ” wrote Pino. “I've realized that the deepest scars of sexual assault are not the bruises or the blood, but the torture of not being believed.”

Wendy Wyler, who was allegedly sexually harassed by her music professor, told me her college’s representatives encouraged her to rethink her assertion, but she discovered a community of other complainants online. She then filed a civil law suit against her school, Southern Connecticut University, the professor, and a couple of administrators. (She has since settled with the professor for an undisclosed amount, but her suit against the school continues.)

In 2013, Brodsky and others created an online petition addressed to Secretary Arne Duncan at the Department of Education: “To create safe, fair campuses across the country, we call on ED to join us in the fight against campus sexual violence by enforcing Title IX law.” They have attained nearly 175,000 signatures.

The Title IX cause has already had its triumphs. In 2013, thirty-seven Occidental College students, alumni, and faculty filed a Title IX civil rights complaint against the university. High-flying attorney Gloria Allred swooped in to represent them. In September, at least 10 of the complainants reached a monetary settlement from the liberal arts school for its inadequate handling of sexual assault accusations. Like many other schools, Occidental also hired an advocate for abuse victims and created a hotline.

At Yale, change has been real if modest. In 2013 it received a $155,000 Clery Act fine from the Department of Education for underreporting sex offences from the early 2000s. (Susan Marine thinks the fine was less than inspiring, given Yale’s endowment of $20.8 billion. “For Yale, [the fine] is chump change,” she says.)

But prior to and during the Yale Title IX investigation, which was resolved in June 2012, some major structural changes were implemented.

When I called Yale to find out what it was doing as a result of the complaints and fines, I spoke to Pamela Schirmeister. She said that the college was now using “student advisory boards to advise the Title IX steering committee,” among other things.

“I think this is a very long-term issue,” said Schirmeister. “There is more awareness on campus about assault and more resources for students. The Title IX coordinators are much, much more visible. There is more programming around prevention of sexual misconduct and raising awareness of our definition of consent. We are spending a lot of money creating communication and consent educators—peer educators—to explain definitions and behaviors.”

There is another side to the Title IX complaints. These young women were sometimes more likely to get a fair hearing and even justice from their colleges than from the police or the courts, experts and university sexual harassment response representatives told me. Sexual assault cases are notoriously hard to prove, in any context. And some of the colleges now trying hard to follow proper procedures may nonetheless fall short. While crime victims deserve the best-possible legal or disciplinary procedures, Title IX complaints may not bring about the outcomes survivors strive for.

Still, perhaps the main success of the complaints is that more women are bringing them. Young women are becoming well-versed in education law and have found their own power to organize. The movement has given rise to a generation of college applicants aware enough of Title IX that they may partly decide which university to attend on the basis of how compliant the school is and how well it protects students and reports misconduct. Sarah Rankin, former director of Harvard’s OSAPR and now a Title IX investigator at MIT, noted at a recent conference that college administrators “can no longer say [they] are unaware of it.”

Rankin advised the young women at the “Stop Slut” conference, held at New York City’s The New School in October, to find out what steps universities specifically take to protect them. “Ask on campus tours if colleges know what Title IX is,” she said. “Ask if there is a place for survivors to go at the college and also what’s the party scene like,” she told the mostly female college- and high school–age audience from the stage. “Ask yourself, ‘Does it feel comfortable for me here?’”

These young women are also changing the broader conversation about campus rape. The assault statistics, and the students’ success at publicizing them, has reached such proportions that it is starting to preoccupy publications from Slate to New York. Last month, Slate kicked off a media battle about how much female students’ binge drinking is really “to blame” for the wave of campus assaults, an idea that has offended many.

All the increased attention has some college administrators concerned about negative media attention, Marine says. “But there are also people at every institution who deeply care about doing this right. It is mortifying to people who feel deeply responsible about not putting students in harm’s way.”

In addition to the increased reporting the complaints may bring about, The Feminist Press publisher Baumgardner adds, “There’s been an uptick in the effort to make complaints more uniform, and for there to be more expulsions of those accused of rape,” she says. “These universities now have these new Title IX specialists. Students are doing protests, tweeting the name of their attackers.”

Rankin and others also point to a movement toward increased “bystander intervention” training and awareness. Witnesses to sexual assault—other students, especially members of fraternities and sororities—need to know how to interrupt or defuse sexual harassment or assault.

Even the bystander intervention move tends to put the onus of preventing assault on students and not colleges. And critics note that universities still have a long way to go. As the site Jezebel recently pointed out, Yale’s July 2013 report on sexual misconduct refers to rape throughout as "nonconsensual sex”—the word “rape” appears only once in its 16 pages.

Some of the women’s lives have been altered by their participation in Title IX and Clery complaints, for good and ill. Not all campus survivors have fared well: Some young women have dropped out of school, taken a leave, or failed to continue their schooling because of the stresses of the assaults themselves and the toll the complaints or legal cases that followed have taken.

Five years after her assault, Brodsky is still in New Haven and now attending Yale Law School. The Title IX complaint process influenced her decision to go to law school. “I decided the Department of Education has to step up its game about enforcing the law,” she says. The women turn to their colleges for justice first, and when their colleges don’t handle their cases adeptly or to their satisfaction, these smart young people take matters into their own hands. They are leveraging the law, with the possible result of a change in universities’ policies, so that future victims won’t be cast aside. Many of Brodsky’s fellow survivors have gone to law school or worked at rape crisis centers, partly in response to what they went through. One former campus activist created a project called Surviving in Numbers, in which young-adult assault survivors create startling handwritten posters about their experiences.

“While none of this would have happened without students protesting and "Take Back the Night," Title IX is more effective,” says Marine. “Any time you bring the federal government or legal system to bear on a social problem, you are going to see more change. There’s a whole different momentum now.”

Brodsky and other survivors are refusing to be victimized. “It was remarkable as a 20-year-old to feel that there was a real tool for justice at my disposal,” Brodsky says. “I want to get better at wielding that tool."