Sexual Harassment on Campus: Title IX and why you should care

Illustration Credit: Marc Nozell via Flickr

On August 14th 2020, the elementary legal weapon for combatting sexual harassment and any other sexual misconduct in US academia was altered.

Title IX, which prohibits any sex-based discrimination within all federally funded academic institutions, including sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and sexual violence, was modified by the Trump administration with the intention of creating a fairer trial process for both victims of sexual harassment and perpetrators. However, it did not take long before it sparked concern among advocates of sexual harassment survivors, academics, and activists, and rightly so.

The façade put up by the Trump Administration that these new rules will improve trial procedures is but an illusion created to fool the people into believing that they were working towards a nation that genuinely “exists to serve its citizens” (Trumps own words from his inauguration speech), by making sexual harassment cases more ‘equitable’. Nevertheless, upon scrutiny, it becomes more and more clear that there may have been a hidden underlying goal, one that aims at silencing victims by making the process of filing a complaint incredibly harder.

But let’s look at the demographics. Studies around the USA gathered continuous and consistent results, where, on average, around 50% of female students have experienced a form of sexual harassment, finding especially high numbers in women of colour. Hard to believe such a statistic?  To make matters worse, and more disturbing, further research has found that many women never come forward, meaning that the numbers are potentially much higher. This maybe isn’t as surprising.

What does this mean? Not only are perpetrators then free to recommit, but the mental, social and physical health of the survivor suffers tremendous damage; victims may come sacrifice their education if the perpetrator was a faculty member or fellow student. Sacrificing your future out of fear and shame induced by a system that does not rightfully protect sexual harassment survivors should never have to be a viable option. Going to the police should never be deemed as pointless, yet this is the case for many women.

The situation is distressing and alarming.

These figures highlight the clear issue; the system is not able, nor willing, to properly support women who report cases of sexual harassment. I add ‘not willing’ as, considering the very Administration in charge of the changes to Title IX, and by referencing statements made by current and former department members, can we really be surprised if they do not take cases of sexual harassment seriously, nor women seriously in general? After all, the numerous statements Trump himself has made on women are no secret.

So how do these new revisions of the law actually work?

Due to the new regulations applied to Title IX by the Trump Administration, reporting has become even less convenient. The new rulings have shifted more support towards the accused individual, whilst some protections placed for survivors are removed. Under these new guidelines, survivors need “more clear and convincing” evidence to file a complaint.

Moreover, there is a worry that formal processes are no longer discouraged, and that victims can be deterred as such. Victims can also be made to talk to their perpetrators, making the process more intimidating and traumatising.

Perhaps the most contentious principle of the new Trump regulations is the new given definition of sexual harassment to behaviour that is “…severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive”. The narrowness of “and” should be, and has been, placed under public scrutiny, insisting that it be replaced by “severe or pervasive”.

Indeed, even Jeannie Suk Gersen, professor at Harvard Law School, adds that the new definition provided by the new Title IX regulations is too narrow, stating that “… a sexual assault may be severe but not pervasive, and some sexual or sexist remarks may be pervasive but not severe”. The slight change in wording makes a huge difference. As a result, many more cases will now fall out of the purview of an investigation. Even fewer cases will be investigated properly.

Ironically, the person responsible for the changes to the Title IX regulations is a woman, Betsy DeVos, the United States Secretary of Education. While this may seem confusing and contradictory, it highlights how strongly misogyny still pervades society, even among women. It can be an internalised belief, which, when backed up by a strong institutional power who supports those ideals, can become externally expressed.

These changes go much deeper than an attempt to make trials of sexual harassment cases fairer. Rather, they reflect the conservative views and beliefs of those that have held authority for the past four years.

Perhaps audaciously, the Trump Administration decided to implement the new Title IX rules amidst these times of confusion in the United States, when these changes are easily overlooked or missed altogether. Whilst the American people remained occupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the beginning of the new school year, steps backwards were taken on behalf of equality for women. It is thus more important than ever to remain informed, fight back, and not allow ourselves to accept any compromises to our rights which we have fought so hard to obtain.

The good news? Now that Trumps presidency has come to an end, and Betsy Devos is no longer Secretary of Education, Biden has a chance to go back over Title IX. In fact, President Joe Biden has already made a promise on strengthening Title IX, and earlier in his career he stated that "Making Title IX as strong as possible is a no-brainer". Naturally, and rather unfortunately, the process of changing the regulations will not be a quick walk in the park.

The DeVos Title IX regulations are ‘binding legal authority’ and we will be “stuck with these for a while”, states Maia Brockbank, co-director of Associated Students of Stanford University. Brockbank continued on to say that if Democrats were able to take the Senate, the legislative process in revising Title IX would be substantially smoother. Luckily, as of now, though only by a wafer-thin margin, this is the case, and thus, we have reason to remain positive.