Every couple of weeks I open my college email and the first message I see has the subject line “Notification of Sexual Assault on Campus”.
We get these emails because the school is legally required (by Title IX) to notify us when someone reports a sex crime on campus. The emails start,
Sexual assault /misconduct report notifications are released when certain crimes are reported on or near campus property, in compliance with federal law and pursuant to College policy.
These timely warnings provide information about campus safety situations, and allow campus community members to take precautions for their personal safety. They contain a few scant details, usually just the name of the college where the incident occurred (we get reports from all 5 schools in the consortium my college is part of), which schools those involved attend and descriptions such as “sexual assault” or “forcible sex.” They say nothing about whether the perpetrators were caught or punished.
The emails are extremely triggering, and the writers acknowledge this:
Before reading this message, please be aware that it may contain information which some may find upsetting or triggering.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it isn’t enough. The mere presence of the emails, floating at the top of my inbox for days until I open them and then get rid of them, is triggering. But even more terrifying than their presence is the trend they suggest. Only 12 percent of college rape survivors report their experience to law enforcement, and I estimate I’ve gotten about 15 Title IX emails this semester. I don’t want to do that math.
For some, the constant presence of these emails is numbing. A guy I know recently posted an unflattering photo of his friend making a creepy face on Facebook. The caption was, “You look like someone we’re gonna get a [Title IX] email about.” The emails have become a punchline. They’ve been turned into a jokey warning, though they cover a serious truth. I saw a woman tell her friends she was leaving a party with a guy she’d just met, and the friend said, “Don’t end up in one of those emails.”
To their credit, the emails do contain a section saying that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, and nothing a person does invites sexual assault. But that’s not the way they’re taken. Instead, they invite a guessing game. The limited information is just enough to fire the engines of the rumor mill, and the rumors lead to blame. The emails used to include the genders of those involved until an email describing an incident between a male victim and female perpetrator led a group of assholes to joke that they wished a hot chick would rape them.
Sometimes, I wonder if the emails are doing more harm than good. An anonymous first-year sexual assault survivor told the school paper that she would have been more likely to report her assaults if she hadn’t been scared of people talking about the email. Many of my friends, of whom I estimate half have had some sort of nonconsensual sexual encounter, have expressed a similar sentiment.
I also suspect that, despite how frightening they are to me, the emails create a false sense of security. They make it seem like the epidemic of sexual violence at American colleges is being addressed more thoroughly than it actually is. A friend of mine at another college was raped by a fellow student, went through the reporting process and was eventually the subject of a Title IX email. But the rapist still attends the college and will graduate on time this May. The emails are not the end of the story.
Women have always found ways to keep themselves and other women safe. We cobble together our own safety measures to protect us when a system fails. I keep a Google Doc on my computer of people at my 5-school consortium who I suspect to be sexual predators. They’re men who I’ve heard rumors about, who my friends have sobbed to me about, who I’ve pried off of drunk women at parties who are mouthing “Help me!” There are many more names on my list than emails I’ve received.
The worst thing about all this is that I suspect my school deals with sexual assault about as well as any private college in the U.S., if not better. None of this is a reflection on my college, which provides survivor resources that some similar colleges don’t. Rather, it’s a reflection on the state of rape culture in the U.S. today. I’m among the millions of young people paying up to tens of thousands of dollars per year in the hope that a college education will help ensure a brighter future. We never consider that the colleges aren’t even able to ensure our basic safety. In the end, their best attempts end up as little more than emails I delete without reading.
I can’t blame the school for these triggering emails: They’re legally required to send them, or face repercussions from the federal government. Still, there has to be more they can do. I would feel much safer if we got follow-up emails notifying us how the perpetrators were punished (assuming they actually get punished, but that’s another matter). Those would reassure us that the administration is taking firm steps against sexual violence, and might even discourage potential predators. We need more proactive responses if we’re going to create a world where we no longer get Title IX emails—because no one is committing sex crimes.
Liat Kaplan is a student at Claremont McKenna College. She plans to major in creative writing and gender and women’s studies. You can read more of her writing at www.liathkaplan.wordpress.com/.