Rumor has it that Betsy DeVos wants to reshape the Title IX policies surrounding campus sexual assault. She recently met with accused rapists and men’s rights groups and her appointee to head the Office of Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, came under fire for claiming that 90 percent of campus sexual assaults are just drunken hookups. As we wait to see what comes next, I want to tell DeVos and Jackson my story.
As strange as it sounds, I didn’t know right away when I was raped. I knew that I felt sick to my stomach every time I thought about his hands or heard his name, but for weeks I thought that feeling was guilt associated with the fact that my rapist had a girlfriend. I played the memory over and over again in my head, unable or maybe unwilling to accept that I was the kind of person who would get involved with someone else’s partner. It wasn’t until months later that I came to accept that I hadn’t, that failing to prevent an assault is not the same as giving consent.
Reporting my assault was its own fresh hell—recounting the worst night of my life in excruciating detail to complete strangers, struggling to remember what I had been wearing and what exact words I had used to say no, worrying that one wrong answer meant no one would believe me. I knew going in that the process would be long and emotionally draining, but I made it through on the assumption that things could only get easier from there.
An agonizing 172 days later, Mark Favorito was found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct for sexual violence. The panel that heard my case recommended suspension, but administration officials—all male, it’s worth noting—decided to lower that punishment to a deferred suspension, making Mark the first student in two years to be found responsible for sexual violence and still get to graduate on time. Because I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to fight back.
I demanded my university reform its policies by publishing a petition that garnered over 2,300 signatures. With the help of GW Students Against Sexual Assault, I handed out flyers to parents touring campus and held a rally outside the Dean’s office. When all my efforts were ignored by the administration, I even protested my own graduation. In the end, he graduated, and so did I—but GW is a better place for the hell that SASA and I raised.
My university failed me, but Title IX allowed me to do something about it. It assured me I wasn’t alone in wanting a campus free of sexual violence and laid out specific guidelines on how and when sexual assault cases like mine should be handled. When GW failed to follow those guidelines, I was able to point to Title IX as evidence of my mistreatment. Without it, universities could only be held to their own policies—which they create. See the problem?
At its core, Title IX was created to make education more equitable, and it has done just that. I and so many others have our friends, family, and Title IX to thank for our degrees. Weakening federal enforcement and instead relying on schools to police themselves would be nothing short of an affront to the possibility of equitable, accessible education for all.
Even when there’s no happy ending, Title IX gives survivors a foundation to build on and a blueprint with which to hold their universities accountable. It creates some level of standardization across the country, making it possible for student advocates to build on each other’s movements. Because of Title IX, the nightmare that I went through, that Emma Sulkowicz went through, that Erica Kinsman and Andrea Pino and Annie Clark went through, wasn’t in vain. Rolling it back, as the Department of Education is gearing up to do, would bring us right back to square one.