TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material which may be upsetting or harmful to survivors of sexual violence, sexual harassment and/or hate crimes.
The president of the United States of America is a sexual predator. During his campaign, a now-infamous leaked tape showed Donald J. Trump boasting about assaulting women. He subsequently dismissed the comments as casual “locker room banter.” The scandal—and the 19 women who subsequently accused him of sexual assault—contributed to national discussions about the prevalence of harassment across the country, especially on college campuses. Now, a man who doesn’t understand consent is president, and the conversation must turn to what’s next. While there remains much to witness, his choice for Secretary of Education speaks volumes to the direction the administration is taking.
The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary for Education proves that Trump’s administration will not stand up for the rights of survivors of sexual assault. As a donor and lobbyist, DeVos has financially supported the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that provides legal assistance and advocates for the rights of perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses. During her confirmation hearing, Devos was asked by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) whether she would uphold the 2011 guidance on Title IX, which requires colleges and universities to actively work to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual assault on campuses. She refused to answer, saying “it would be premature to do so.”
Student organizers, administrators and community advocates rely on Title IX policies and funding that require colleges and universities to actively work to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual assault on campuses. An attack on this guidance will have enormous effect on students and survivors at Northeastern. Meanwhile, across the country, the power of campus organizers speaking out for their rights, safety and autonomy is growing.
The Sexual Assault Response Coalition (SARC) at Northeastern started in 2014 as a campaign to support survivors at a university that seeks to silence them. The first campaign centered on a proposal to establish a gender resource center on campus. Subsequent campaigns have included advocating for an increase of confidential resources for students on campus, promoting visibility around mandated reporting, fairly analyzing and publicizing the results of campus climate surveys and reforming the Student Conduct Board process so students do not decide the legitimacy of sexual assault cases or determine punishment for perpetrators at Northeastern.
This is an especially poignant time for this work, not only due to the threats of Trump and DeVos but also because of the Title IX cases currently levied against Northeastern University. In 2014, a former student filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for the mishandling of her sexual assault case. In October 2016, Morgan Helfman, a junior political science and sociology major, sued Northeastern, as well as five current and former administrators, for counts of negligence, breach of contract, violation of Title IX, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, violation of the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act and misrepresentation of crime statistics by the school.
When the latter allegations came out, SARC engaged in supportive dialogue with our community to share experiences and build consciousness around the nature and character of sexual assault at Northeastern. We also participated in a direct action to drop a banner on campus reading “Students Stand With Survivors,” and a student dropped a banner from their residence hall window reading “Northeastern Protects Rapists.” We published a list of demands, mediations and current initiatives. Our visibility and power is growing and this semester student engagement, participation and interest in the campaign is at an all-time high. Knowing that we need unity in the face of the next four years, students are resisting the oppressive and unhelpful policies and procedures of the university with resilience and courage.
All around the country, students are in action; conversations driven by the women’s marches in cities across the U.S. and the world are bringing women’s issues to the table. Whether we are marching or building local campaigns, this movement is led by intersectional, millennial feminists who understand that we cannot talk about sexual assault without talking about how it affects black, brown, queer, non-binary, trans, Muslim and immigrant lives. We understand that men are survivors of sexual assault and we value breaking down toxic masculinity in our fight to end gendered violence. We understand how to work in coalition and across difference. We are ready for this fight.
This is a terrifying time, both on college campuses and around the country, to be a survivor of sexual assault. But there is hope. Power is building among students, not just on Northeastern’s campus but on campuses across the country. We are advocating for our safety, health, human rights and autonomy. We are resisting the tides that seek to normalize sexual assault and devalue our experiences. Together, with the power of community and resistance, we are building a grassroots movement. If Betsy DeVos revokes Title IX funding, we will stand up and fight back.
– Martha Durkee-Neuman is a third-year human services and international affairs major.
Photo courtesy of the Sexual Assault Response Coalition at Northeastern University.