I’m a little more exhausted than I expected to be when sitting down to write this post. It’s been a long, busy, exciting but stressful day in the world of campus sexual violence activism. As you probably know by now, today (well, really yesterday but I am writing this on Monday night) the Obama Administration and Office of Civil Rights released new “regulatory guidance on how colleges and universities must respond to campus sexual assaults.” NPR does a great job of breaking down the doc’s main points.
It’s a 19 page document that I’m not going to do a full analysis of right now. But I would like to highlight the fact that this really clarifies the difference between the criminal justice system’s responsibility to investigate rape and a campus’s responsibility. We hear a lot of criticism that schools have no place getting involved in rape cases, that it’s best left to the criminal justice system. But by re-framing sexual violence as a civil rights issue under Title IX, it becomes very clear why the school MUST be involved. They have the responsibility to maintain an environment free of discrimination and a “hostile environment” that “interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s program.” So what’s great about this document is that it is extremely victim-focused—it goes into detail about making sure the victim knows their rights, in regard to both the CJ and school systems, and what kind of support student survivors should receive. I’ve never really understood the idea that a rape report should go straight to the police—what happens to the survivor while that plays out? Don’t the need procedures on their school detailing how they can be sure the accused perpetrator can’t contact them? Stating that retaliation won’t be tolerated? Outlining services and housing/academic accommodations? The OCR guidance is very explicit about this, which is a great relief.
This is definitely a huge, amazing step in the right direction. Yes, there are some pieces I’m not super jazzed about (for example, I think they could have used stronger language on amnesty policies on page 15, especially given the seriousness of that issue), but the very fact that the OCR has issued this guidance is a huge deal. They are acknowledging, publicly and loudly, that there is a problem. And schools can no longer claim ignorance–the “recommendations” are clear as day. At the end of the day though, this document is just guidance. There is no new legislation here. OCR has made it clear that they will be actively investigating more campus assault Title IX cases, but this doesn’t actually amend Title IX. I’m still holding out for legislation before I get in full celebration mode. Campus SAVE Act anyone?
Anyway, to introduce this new document into the world, Vice President Joe Biden gave a passionate speech at the University of New Hampshire (one that I live-tweeted this morning at SAFER’s twitter). Honestly, I haven’t heard Biden speak many times and I was very impressed with his clear commitment to the issue of violence against women. His voice was audibly shaky and angry at times; the emotion was sincere. And for the most part, his message was really on the mark.
- He framed violence against women as a general lack of human decency, a human rights issue that impacts all of us, and that we are all responsible for (rather than it being a personal, or family issue)
- Without using the word “patriarchy” he managed to discuss VAW as an “abuse of power”
- He really pounded home the importance of primary prevention, repeating that in order to end violence, we need to change attitudes.
- He took a really strong stance against victim-blaming, mentioning alcohol, the way one is dressed, and consenting to some but not all sexual activity
- He mentioned that men are also victims of sexual violence (although to be real, to hear the speech you would think that only men rape women…it was pretty heteronormative, which I suppose isn’t surprising).
- He addressed the need for better bystander behavior, especially for guys. He addressed guys directly on a number of occasions, telling them they have to hold themselves and each other responsible
- And he spoke directly to women: “Women, never ever ever accept the proposition that it is your fault if you are abused or raped.”
There was some stuff I didn’t like. At the beginning there was this whole “we should be better than other barbaric cultures who abuse their women” schtick that kind of made me want to puke. And there was one point where he talked about how women were often “figuratively raped” by the criminal justice process, and I just really hate that use of the word. And some of the gendering was pretty lame. But in general I was impressed and touched. At the end of the day, it’s just really, really nice to believe that someone like Biden actually cares. And I think I believe it.