By Fajer Saeed Ebrahim, RJ State Fellow, Legal Voice & Surge
Title IX is a federal law that addresses sex discrimination and violence at schools and guarantees students an education free from such hostilities. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 Dear Colleague Letter clarified Title IX’s application in regard to how schools respond to sexual harassment, including sexual violence. The current administration believes the Letter to be inadequate –and even inappropriate– in addressing concerns around sexual violence on college campuses, particularly as they relate to respondents’ rights. Betsy DeVos has rescinded the 2011 guidelines, replacing them with an interim set of Questions and Answers that allow universities to roll back the Obama-era policies. What the Trump administration fails to understand is that in dismissing the need for strong protections against sexual assault, everyone is harmed — thereby reinforcing a culture of violence.
So far, Title IX conversations have focused on the very real harms inflicted on cisgender women by cisgender men on college and university campuses. This conversation is much needed: one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. This does not take into account the vast number of sexual violence cases that go unreported; more than 90% of sexual assault survivors on college campuses do not report the assault. And at one university, 63.3% of men, who self-reported actions qualifying as rape or attempted rape, admitted to committing repeated rapes.
As much as we need to talk about sexual violence and cisgender women, however, we need to talk about sexual violence and all women, including and especially transgender women and transgender women of color. Applying a reproductive justice lens can better inform efforts around Title IX education and implementation, in part because reproductive justice asks broader questions about consent and sex positivity, but it also centers the most marginalized in the work.
A good question to start with is: what vulnerable populations are we currently leaving out of the conversation? An intersectional lens must be applied when we address the complexities that come with supporting someone who identifies “differently,” as they navigate sexual violence and Title IX. This effort begins with dismantling the “perfect victim” narrative and extending it far beyond the chaste, feminine, young girl. Populations often overlooked or altogether ignored include international students, as well as transgender, gender non-binary, and gender non-conforming students, and communities of color. Sexual violence is about power and is thus fundamentally intertwined with the power dynamics of sexism, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia, among others. Whose bodies and lives are for the consumption, abuse, and disposal of others is a critical question here. Another is who we believe can be harmed and whether or not that harm is worth responding to.
According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 46.4% of lesbians, 74.9% of bisexual women, and 43.3% of heterosexual women report sexual violence other than rape during their lifetimes, while 40.2% of gay men, 47.4% of bisexual men, and 20.8% of heterosexual men do. According to the Association of American Universities’ Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, one in four transgender students has been sexually assaulted since enrolling in college. The same survey found almost 14% of gay or lesbian students reported being sexually assaulted and more than 24% of undergraduates identifying as transgender, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact. The data is lacking when it comes to international students, who may face additional language and cultural barriers. The conclusion, however, is clear: those who are disproportionally discriminated against in broader society have a similar experience on their campuses, but their experiences are invisible or discounted.
As reproductive justice lawyers and advocates, we need to address the gaps in Title IX enforcement and education efforts by using a reproductive justice framework that focuses on the intersection of race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality. We need to shed light on the diverse experiences that the current national Title IX conversation fails to acknowledge and the harms that result as a consequence. Title IX education, outreach, and implementation efforts need to explicitly acknowledge how diverse, marginalized student populations distinctly interface with both sexual violence and Title IX policies. Only then can we craft solutions that actually work. Anything short of this is more than a mere disservice to students — it enables violence to continue.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.