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South Lawn by Kevin Nelson CC BY-NC 2.0
Body Politics, Justice

Preparation, Preservation, and Possibility under Title IX

The structure of Title IX actually bears the right shape of how sexual violence should be addressed, if not the language or content sufficient to address such a horror.

I pass a sign each day on my way to my office with emergency preparedness information from the campus police department. It has a clever logo arranging the words “Prepare Yourself / Be Ready” into three lines, with the relevant letters highlighted to have “Are You Ready” emerge from the same text. The version of the sign near my office has instructions anticipating a medical emergency, an active shooter, a hazardous material spill, fire, earthquake, and tornado.

The yellow words “Are You Ready” strike me daily with some unsubtle reference to whatever I’m teaching. The logo has become a minor punchline of my morning routine, if also a reminder of the unsettling diversity of preparation that might become relevant for class.

I was more startled, though, to discover the same logo on materials distributed by the university to incoming undergraduates with information about sexual assault. The pamphlet I encountered had lists of campus and community resources for victims ranging from city police precincts to the Title IX office to an anonymous hotline run for students by students. “Are You Ready” has a strange grammar in this context, though perhaps it only reveals what is strange about much emergency preparedness.

What could it mean to “be ready” for sexual assault? What should you “prepare yourself” for?  And what does it mean to “be ready” for such intimate violence as one is “ready” for a tornado, an earthquake, or a hazardous material spill?

Most immediately, the pamphlet prepares students to report sexual assault, to seek help if they experience it, and to help others connect to professional resources. But it participates in a larger project of preparation for sexual violence on college campuses that begins from a strange juxtaposition of facts, possibilities, and the imperatives they are supposed to imply. These imperatives of preservation, of keeping students safe from sexual violence, offer important examples of imperatives to preserve and prepare, to mitigate harm and reduce vulnerability. They also show us how we might engage them collectively to preserve the possibilities, and while reducing the threats, inherent in our lives together.

Many students enter college in the United States today with knowledge of the (substantially contested) statistic that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted before graduation. This figure forms the foundation of a larger depiction of college campuses as “hunting grounds” for sexual predators, or at least grounds on which young women (paradigmatically) are being hunted. Discussion of the perpetrators of sexual violence is often obscured, to avoid the discomforts of reminding anyone that fellow students are responsible for most cases.

Sexual violence is depicted, then, as a diffuse threat, lurking in the corners of fraternity parties and behind unlocked dorm room doors. In this picture, it is fueled by first encounters with alcohol and drugs, the product of “not knowing better” than to engage in various risky behaviors and not having control of yourself in the way you might if you were older, wiser, and less easily misled.

Sexual violence is as much the product of students’ innocence and inexperience, from this view, as it is the threat to it. Preparation, then, is crucial: a less naïve student will be less vulnerable. Prevention, then, is possible. And preservation—of students’ safety, of the safety of the community, and of the Title IX-dependent federal funding of the institution—might be possible as well.

The imperative to keep students safe from sexual violence has become a focus of many college and university administrations since the 2011 Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter defined sexual violence as a threat to a student’s right to an education free from discrimination on the basis of sex. To ensure compliance with Title IX, colleges and universities needed to take proactive measures “to prevent sexual harassment and violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” Failure to do so could result in a DOE investigation and the loss of federal funding.

In compliance with the letter’s recommendations, schools around the country opened or expanded Title IX offices to become de facto centers for victims of sexual violence. They created or enhanced prevention programs and had to designate faculty and many staff “mandatory reporters” of sexual harassment and assault to the Title IX officer. Title IX offices expanded and subsumed efforts already in place on many campuses. At some institutions, peer counseling groups, anonymous student-to-student hotlines, and activist groups all ended up under the umbrella of Title IX compliance, part of the effort to create “an educational environment free from discrimination” for all students.

These measures have been far from universally welcomed by activists and survivors. While the Dear Colleague letter elevated the stakes for colleges and universities to pay attention to the issue, it also recast sexual violence as a problem of rights violation and the prevention of “hostile environments” for students to pursue educational opportunities. Equal access to educational opportunity is the primary thing that must be preserved. Keeping students safe is a matter of making sure they have access to education, “the great equalizer in America,” as the letter declares in its first line.

This might be an appropriate action on the part of the Department of Education, but it allows administrations to refocus and reframe fights against sexual violence as only matters of compliance with Title IX. Substantial questions of moral horror, social norm and sanction, and possibilities of justice and repair can be easily dodged or obscured. The campus community can unite in a project of self-preservation without having to confront the horror of sexual violence at all. What we are preserving is our funding, through compliance with Title IX. What we are preparing for are interruptions to that compliance, incidents that test how well everyone will comply. What we might build together, what we should imagine together, is a campus safe from violations of policy and procedure.

Like many legal and institutional efforts to address moral horrors, Title IX’s approach to sexual violence has created cautious procedures and convoluted vocabularies that seem to mute what a community might offer in response even before it can hear a victim’s cries.

It teaches victims that their violation was a violation of their rights, not of their person, and that community responsibility, justice-seeking, and repair comes in the form of awareness of personal risk factors, disciplinary hearings, and orders to comply with class schedule change requests. It teaches the campus community that preparing for the possibility of sexual violence is a matter of preparing to report it when it happens, and that keeping students safe is a matter of spreading awareness about “risky behaviors”— behaviors that individuals are responsible for avoiding, as the “awareness” literature and programming suggests.

The imperative to keep students safe from sexual violence should also be an imperative to collectively examine what constitutes and facilitates such violence. That examination would have to include a consideration of what sexual violence makes possible: what structures of power, potential, and achievement are being supported by violence, instead of undermined by its creation of a hostile environment for some students.

An old problem with thinking about “self-preservation” and keeping selves safe from sexual violence is that it is hard to understand what “self,” or what state of a self, should be “preserved.”  Traditionally, in many contexts, what was violated in sexual violence was a self defined as the property of another, and a self whose value (or ‘the value of which’) was defined by its purity, either by having never been used or its singular use by another. These are not selves for whom “education has long been recognized as the great equalizer;” they are selves who are supposed to be preserved for others to whom they are not equal.

Moving beyond ideas of property and purity requires a more complex understanding of what, and who, is being violated in sexual violence, if sexual violence is even the right (or right-sized) umbrella term under which to have the discussion. This is a demanding task, and one for which religious and philosophical traditions seem far better suited than legal ones (though still not well suited, in many cases).

It also requires a recognition that people will be simultaneously vulnerable to sexual violence while pursuing sexual autonomy—that part of a commitment to equality of autonomy will be some defiance of old models of “keeping people safe.” Sexual violence takes place in contexts where vulnerability is the point, the desirable state, or even the desire itself. What must be preserved, then, is some possibility of vulnerability, even as we seek to reduce the harm to which such vulnerability exposes us.

In this way, the structure of Title IX actually bears the right shape of how sexual violence should be addressed, if not the language or content sufficient to address such a horror. It defines the imperative of keeping students safe as the imperative to protect possibility, not to preserve some pure, unsullied state of students’ selves. What it loses in translation into institutional structures and the language of rights and equality of opportunity is substantial, and substantially troubling. But its inclination toward the preservation of possibility is an instructive suggestion for communities interested in engaging a more appropriate response to this complex vulnerability.

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