Enough Is Enough: Schools Must Take Rape Survivors Seriously

Of all the things I was expecting from UC Berkeley’s national conference on sexual violence last week, hearing a law professor compare sexual assault survivors to lynch mobs was not one of them.

“Twenty-five percent of the lynching occurred based upon accusations of rape,” said Michael O’Connor of the University of La Verne College of Law. “You’re labeling somebody a rapist—that’s something we have hung people for repeatedly in this country.”

The professor was speaking on a Feb. 24 panel about how to ensure a fair campus adjudication process for sexual assault cases, and suggesting that the recent uptick in federal Title IX lawsuits targeting campus sexual assault is akin to the lynch mobs of decades past.

Students aren’t protesting and filing complaints to vilify our schools, though. We love our institutions and want them to do better—and when that happens, we will commend them for it.

But Berkeley and other embattled colleges are only trying to look like they care about preventing sexual assault. They’ve made superficial modifications, such as creating websites with resources that are either inaccessible or ineffective, and establishing task forces that make recommendations to “resolve inconsistencies among campus policies” instead of overhauling flawed existing policies.

That’s why myself and nine other students staged a silent demonstration at the recent panel. The moderator was one of the lead administrators on our campus who investigates sexual assaults and was named in a 31-person federal complaint that alleges cases are systemically mishandled that I filed with other student activists last year.

With 15 minutes left in the discussion, 10 of us—students from both Berkeley and UCLA—stood up, covered our mouths with duct tape, and held up red construction-paper signs with insensitive quotes said to survivors by college officials, friends, parents, professors, psychologists and rapists. One, from the aforementioned moderator, read: “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I see 500 cases every year and I was only able to seek two disciplinary resolutions last year.” She denied the quote in The Los Angeles Times.

Time and time again, myself and other students have felt that, even with increased media attention in the last several years, our schools are not listening to us. They are quick to make easy and aesthetically appealing fixes, and then immediately proclaim themselves as national leaders against violence. Why are survivors not included in a conversation that is supposed to be about us?

If more survivors had been allowed to speak at the conference, we would’ve recommended several key changes. First, there needs to be a drastic re-centering of the dialogue to focus on survivors. Instead of paternalistically shutting us out from hiring committees and ignoring recommendations that we rarely get the chance to make, officials ought to institute an accessible feedback mechanism for officials and investigators so that they can hear new ideas and be held accountable.

Moreover, survivors must be included in the hiring process for investigators and other employees who engage with sexual assault survivors on a regular basis. Beyond frequently interacting with these officials, it’s also important that survivors be involved in hiring because it’s in these confidential meetings that insensitive comments often get made and legal violations go undisciplined. It’s much easier to hire the right people in the first place than to deal with the consequences later.

Critics will say that having survivors on hiring committees will bias the adjudication process, but the issue isn’t that survivors are trying to make the process unfair. What we want is the reshuffling of a deck of cards that has consistently been stacked against us.

Some progress has already been made thanks to the work of anti-rape activists. For example, Berkeley hired a confidential liaison for survivors. Students were included in the hiring process, and now the liaison helps survivors get academic and living accommodations or go through the reporting process (although she does not serve as an advocate). Other schools ought to hire similar liaisons using students’ input.

As a fellow activist Thanh Mai Bercher said, “People may think we are being heard because you are choosing to listen. Rather, we are being heard because we are shouting. We bear the burden of silence, and so now, our words must speak for themselves.”

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo courtesy of the author

Sofie Karasek is an anti-sexual-violence activist and a co-founder of End Rape on Campus. She spearheaded two 31-person federal complaints against the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently a senior studying Political Economy.