What the Midterms Could Mean for Survivors of Rape, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

“It felt like the school was punishing me for reporting the rape,” says California college student Amelia W., who was raped a month after the Trump administration revoked long-standing Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault on school campuses. Despite the university’s finding that her rapist was guilty of sexual misconduct, his appeal dragged on for months and the attacker remained on campus.

Thousands sang, chanted and rallied for gender equality during a march to mark International Women’s Day in 2015. A common theme was ending violence and harassment. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

Upon confirmation as Education secretary, Betsy DeVos issued new Title IX guidelines that have eliminated time deadlines for resolving complaints and allow schools to refuse to provide interim measures to keep survivors safe while their case is ongoing. Amelia’s school did not initially provide her with any form of protection, despite her repeated pleas. About a month into the investigation, a no-contact order was issued against her rapist, but in accordance with DeVos’ new directives, the school had to issue a no-contact order against her as well, as if Amelia were a threat to her rapist rather than he to her. Five months after the initial finding, the school affirmed its decision to hold the attacker responsible. He was suspended after the first finding of responsibility, although it took months. He has since filed a second appeal; as of press time, the no-contact order against Amelia was still active.

Per the Trump administration’s guidelines, schools are now permitted to require that sexual assault survivors meet a higher burden of proof—“clear and convincing evidence”—than that mandated in most other disciplinary cases on campus, which require proof by a “preponderance of the evidence.” The new guidelines also allow alleged perpetrators to directly cross-examine survivors—even about their sexual history. As a result, some schools are not responding promptly, or at all, to student complaints, and others have weakened their Title IX enforcement procedures, citing the administration’s new guidance, which also applies to middle school and high school students.

This piece is excerpted from an urgent and in-depth report in the Fall 2018 issue of Ms. about the upcoming midterm elections. Become a Ms. member today to read the entire feature—and more feminist reporting from around the world.

“Trump’s boasts about assault have become government policy,” says Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit organization that, along with SurvJustice and the Victim Rights Law Center, is suing the Trump administration to stop implementation of these guidelines, arguing they are based on the discriminatory belief that women lie about sexual assault. “We’re actually talking about government policy encouraging the punishment of survivors for reporting. It is not an absence of enforcement. It is a culture of retaliation that is punitive when people are trying to exercise their civil rights.”

The Trump administration is also rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence and defunding programs that help survivors and work to prevent violence. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated domestic violence as grounds for asylum and axed funding that provided legal assistance to survivors of sex trafficking to clear their criminal records of charges related to their trafficking experience.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—which funds programs to address sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking across the country. In July, a VAWA reauthorization bill was introduced that would fund existing programs and add important new protections. The act would triple funds for the prevention of rape and sexual harassment, enhance employment and housing assistance for survivors to help them escape violence, and end impunity for non-Native perpetrators on tribal lands. The reauthorization bill would also increase enforcement and close loopholes in the federal law prohibiting domestic abusers from purchasing and possessing guns—a move that could reduce by 22 percent the number of intimate-partner murders committed using firearms, according to a 2017 longitudinal study.

Congress allowed VAWA to expire in September 2018. (The funding does not expire.) In the meantime, “abusers are feeling really emboldened,” says Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage, a domestic violence shelter in western Massachusetts. Winters says she has seen the chilling effects of having a “self-avowed perpetrator” in the White House. Trump, who stands accused of groping, harassment and sexual assault by more than a dozen women, has defended and hired men who abuse and cover up the abuse of women. These include former White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Accused of domestic violence by two wives, he was ultimately fired following a national outcry. But Trump then hired former Fox News co-president Bill Shine. Now assistant to the president and White House deputy chief of staff for communications, Shine is accused of covering up sexual harassment at Fox.

“That gives a message to abusers, survivors and the population in general that perpetrators, they are beyond accountability,” Winters says.

Congress can create a bulwark against the harmful Trump administration policies by reversing the dangerous rollback of Title IX guidelines, reauthorizing VAWA and enacting common-sense gun control. At stake are the very lives of women and girls—our safety at home, in school, in the workplace and on the streets.

Carrie N. Baker is associate professor and director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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