WORDS: TAYLER J. MATHEWS | ART: FAYE ORLOVE
In 2015, I made the difficult decision to file a federal Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
As a Black woman pursuing my graduate education at a Historically Black University, the decision to report my institution was agonizing. Nevertheless, I refused to yield to notions that pressure women, femmes, non-binary, queer, and trans people from communities of color to subordinate parts of ourselves, leaving our safety susceptible to peril. Although I hoped my university would abide by federal law so that all matters could be addressed internally, this did not happen. My original complaint detailed the failure of my university to investigate my repeated reports of sexual harassment and general non-compliance to Title IX policy. This complaint has since been updated to include retaliation.
As long as universities remain active participants in the perpetuation of dehumanizing systems, such as white supremacy and patriarchy, they will also serve to instigate gender-based violence, which includes sexual violence, cissexism, and heterosexism. We have yet to fully account for the numerous ways these institutions cultivate an environment in which gender violence occurs in its most blatant forms, as well as the everyday denial and reprisal that survivors confront after reporting.
My intention here is to briefly reflect on my reporting experience, highlighting how universities both encourage and intensify gender violence. I also write this essay to inspire the continued excavation of narratives that have been buried by way of trivialization, shame, and concerted efforts to obscure.
Universities Are Home to a Multitude of Perpetrators.
Although Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil right, many universities display an egregious disregard for this law. When employees fail to hold perpetrators accountable they inadvertently facilitate gender discrimination, encouraging further violence and empowering persons who commit these abuses. Perpetrators are not only the individuals who commit violent acts; they are also the faculty, administration, and support staff who continue to look the other way, who deny survivors experiences — aiding and abetting injustice.
I can recall many instances when university employees facilitated the sexually hostile environment that I was persistently trying to escape. One of these instances involves the federal right to accommodations, which is supposed to prevent survivors from being subject to additional discrimination and forced into spaces with perpetrators. I repeatedly asked faculty and administrators to recognize this right, as I was fearful of having to continue attending classes with the student harasser. Some employees responded dismissively, to say the least.
Eventually, I would discover that the only “accommodation” my academic department would concede was for me to enter a classroom through an alternative entrance. I was to exit the classroom slightly before or after the perpetrator, through this same separate — but equal — door. While in class, I would be directed to sit on the opposite side of the room of the perpetrator. By the time I learned of this “accommodation” I had already stopped attending the class. It wasn’t a safe space.
Undoubtedly, this was not an accommodation. It did not, in any way, address a hostile classroom environment. This is an example of an insensitive action that furthers discriminatory treatment, stigmatizes a survivor for coming forward, and imparts that gender-based harms are not regarded with seriousness.
Predators In High Places Complicates Reporting.
The remarkable unwillingness of some employees to seriously consider Title IX complaints seems to be related to another critical reality: too many predators are in positions of power. Too many predators are involved in processes that are designed to bring justice to survivors. To whom can students report when seeking help, at times desperately so, if like-minded and potentially like-behaving individuals are in the very offices to which we are directed? The gatekeepers of justice and safety are sometimes the very people we are seeking justice and safety from.
Although my Title IX complaint resulted from the discriminatory actions of a student, this is not the only type of gender violence I have experienced. I have repeatedly heard faculty members make their sexist beliefs known, such as the professor who chauvinistically remarked that women and domestic duties naturally coincide. Some faculty become additional perpetrators of sexual harassment, making unwanted and wildly inappropriate remarks about women’s bodies. Once during a lecture, I was even asked if I had ever been raped.
Such individuals have a stake in keeping Title IX complaints quiet, or else they must engage in the self-analysis that requires them to admit how they too may be a perpetrator. They would have to own up to themselves and to their own past, and perhaps present, wrongdoings. Since this usually does not happen, it is the survivor who must be silenced and shamed. When universities communicate that our student concerns are frivolous, they are also telling us that our safety is not a priority. They are telling us that our academic pursuits do not matter. They are telling us that we do not matter.
Retaliation Exacerbates Gender-Based Harms.
Too often abuse is furthered by way of reprisals, with little intervention and avenues to seek help. I have made numerous attempts throughout my own experience to communicate concerns about such retaliatory mistreatment. After reporting to the Department of Education I have had to rely on legal counsel on several occasions to assist with basic academic functions, such as advising and registration. I have had a faculty member sit in on an advisement meeting as a “witness,” I have been pressured to sign documents to agree to attend classes with a perpetrator, and I have been refused information required for enrollment unless I conceded that my “issue” was “resolved” (all while the university remains under federal investigation).
Of course, I have attempted to notify administrators of such blatant discriminatory treatment. My initial presumption was that employees at this level would understand these actions as conspicuous instances of reprisal, and certainly a liability for the institution. However, the university administration has been of little assistance throughout the years. On one occasion in which I attempted to report faculty for retaliation, an administrator not only denied the behavior but also added the professor to the email exchange. The implied message was clear: further reporting would not be promising.
This type of crass and unjust response can dishearten survivors who may then choose to drop their complaints. Other survivors may be discouraged from initiating a report altogether as they observe how harrowing the process can be. When students ask for help, we are recurrently met with intimidation, invalidation, and blame, and this is how erasure happens. Erasure happens every day when it is claimed that sexism, sexual harassment, sexual assault, queerphobia, and transphobia are not serious, do not exist in academic spaces, or exist at all.
Despite the many challenges, I remain committed to speaking my truth. I believe that all members of the academic community must take action against gender-based discrimination and violence. I conclude with several hopeful reminders to both students and university employees.
Reminders For Students and University Employees
Students: we must remember that our voices are powerful and we can initiate transformation. We have numerous avenues to hold our institutions accountable, be it (social) media, writing, student organizing, direct actions, federal law and reports, non-profit organizations, and legal recourse.
Faculty and administrators: please remember that you are often one of the first persons to whom survivors report. Many faculty and administrators have gained the trust of their students, and we expect you to do right by us when you know of a problem. We expect you to help. I am fortunate to know a small number of compassionate employees who continue to provide me with encouragement and support. It is for these mentors and individuals of principle that I express my deepest gratitude.
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