By Lily Eisner, YWCA USA Public Policy & Advocacy Intern, Summer 2017
One day last spring, vandals scrawled messages threatening sexual violence in common areas and stole several pairs of women’s underwear from laundry rooms in a sorority at my school, Dartmouth College. The horrific message shook the entire student body. Copycat messages and thefts began appearing around campus. Off-campus apartments began to keep their doors locked—a strange occurrence for the trusting New England town. The Dartmouth community was going through a terrifying time. And yet, for the first time in my college experience, I saw a student body that was finally taking sexual violence seriously.
My male, mostly white, classmates were surprised. I overheard them commenting, “I didn’t know people really did things like that,” or “I can’t believe this is happening.” At the same time, my fellow white, female classmates refrained, “I never knew I could feel so unsafe at school.” I saw shock, awe, and horror on my classmates’ faces, and I began to wonder, why does it take a palpably horrible and public threat of sexual violence against a predominantly white and, for lack of a better word, “cool” sorority for our student community to realize that sexual violence happens all the time on our campus? Why are we not aware that LGBTQ+ students and students of color feel unsafe every day? Haven’t we heard stories from our friends? Or attended any of the countless survivor performances? Just as my classmates were shocked by the sudden presence of overt sexual violence, I too was shocked by Dartmouth’s otherwise collective, and disturbing, apathy prior to this incident.
An estimated one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. In my experience at college and in my circle of peers, this figure rings true. I have heard countless stories from my friends, women I care for deeply, about their sexual assault. I’ve heard about and discussed the rape culture that is pervasive on campus. I’ve talked with my friends experiences that we deemed “questionable.” I’ve heard certain fraternity basements described as “rape-y” and men described as “pressure-y.” I’ve seen women so scared and upset that they punch men from the “nice fraternities” so that they would stop following them home from a party. I’ve seen women drop out of an academic term early for fear of their own safety. And yet, I have not seen any of my friends go through the official college judicial process. Not one.
Though my school purports to create a community in which “sexual assault, sexual or gender-based harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking are not tolerated,” rape culture prevails at Dartmouth College and at universities across the country (Dartmouth College, Policies and Procedures). Of course, there are students who choose to come forward—students who still have faith in the college’s strongly-worded policies. But what those students find is a complex, unsupportive, and unrelenting maze of paperwork and policy. One survivor described the Dartmouth judicial process as a “full-time job” on top of her coursework—an entirely unreasonable commitment for any person to undertake. Even so, this process often takes so long that the perpetrator graduates before its conclusion; the process often takes years.
As I write this I cannot help, but feel crushed by the immense failure of our institutions. Campus sexual assault is impacting students every day, not only when it makes the news, like the one that took place at Dartmouth. The issue of campus sexual assault does not and should not come down to a choice between protecting women and protecting men, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would have us believe. Campus assault is not “90 percent” drunk and/or break-up sex as Candice Jackson told the New York Times. And the Department of Education’s effort to roll back Title IX guidelines under the guise of protecting young men is deeply concerning.
The issue with campus sexual assault is that we—as college students, as campus advocates, as college administrators, as government officials—do not take it seriously unless there is an overt and aggressive attack on a group of wealthy, white women. The reality is that strongly-worded policies do not in themselves create safe communities—but the roll back of these policies, particularly Title IX, would serve only to create fear and deny a student’s right to justice. Policies have to be implemented and enforced to be effective. The issue with campus sexual assault is that we have created a false dichotomy—the lie that we can protect men or we can protect women but we cannot protect both. Not only is this dichotomy dangerously untrue, but actively excludes men who are survivors of sexual assault, gender queer survivors, trans survivors, and so many more human beings seeking support.
Of course, school and government policies will not, by themselves, end the plague of sexual assault, gender-based violence, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking at universities and communities across the country. But protecting Title IX enforcement and the Obama administration’s call to take campus sexual violence more seriously is a step forward, towards a world without gender-based violence.
Instead, this administration has done the exact opposite.
Lily Eisner is a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in chemistry and mathematics with a minor in English. Lily was honored this fall to become a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society as one of the top 20 students in her class. After her internship with the YWCA, Lily hopes to work in public policy after graduation. She also loves to play ultimate frisbee, hike in the white mountains, and cook with her family.
Week Without Violence is part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls with YWCAs across the country and around the world. At YWCA, we know that not all violence is acknowledged or responded to equally. That’s why, for more than 20 years, YWCA has set aside one week in October as a Week Without Violence. Join us from October 16 to 20 as we hold events, share information and stories, advocate, and more with a common goal in mind: together, we can end gender-based violence.
Want to join the movement to end gender-based violence? Learn more, look up events in your area, register your own event(s), and more at our website, and join the conversation on social media!