Chin: Beyond Title IX

Title IX should be preserved, but its limitations must be made clear.

by Clara Chin | 9/14/17 12:35am

Betsy DeVos’ changes to the sexual assault portion of Title IX is understood by many as a deterioration of an already flawed system for survivors of sexual trauma on college campuses. This legislative action, announced last week, follows critiques of Title IX from men’s rights activists and from lawyers of students who felt they had been wrongly accused. Considering President Donald Trump’s administration’s track record with women, there is no question that the assessment is true.

While it is easy to conceive of the problems with Title IX as an issue limited to the Trump administration, it is actually the culmination of issues inherent to legal or procedural processes relating to sexual assault. Of course, perpetrators of sexual assault should be held accountable for their actions, but Title IX and other judicial bodies are not (and will never be) equipped to combat many aspects of sexual trauma and its aftermath. In order to help victims of both “small-scale” and “large-scale” sexual trauma cope, we must realize that Title IX, with or without DeVos’ recent changes, is not enough. One priority should be ensuring that Title IX remains intact, but we should also realize that Title IX is just one piece of a larger puzzle in creating a safe campus culture for survivors of various types of trauma.

Title IX uses the legal system to address sexual assault. Judicial action focuses on the perpetrator instead of the victim and will not necessarily provide closure for the victim. Yet the focus of the national conversation on the judicial action portion of Title IX relies on the assumption that punishing those guilty of sexual assault provides healing for the perpetrators. For some, the legal system is enough. Knowing that a perpetrator must face consequences for their actions might help some rest easy, especially with the knowledge that the perpetrator might be less likely to assault other people. But for many victims, the trauma still persists; for others, there might not even be a legal solution to their particular trauma.

Another major criticism of Title IX is what some consider an inability to impose due process. Put simply, the legal system imposes a binary in which an act can only be sexual assault or not sexual assault — by calling an action sexual assault, someone must be punished. The few instances in which victims supposedly “exaggerate” the actions of the accused might be a result of this. By not calling an incident sexual assault, the victim goes unheard; by calling an incident sexual assault, the punishment may be considered too harsh. This dichotomy thus ignores the ambiguity and conflict of sexuality, especially for college students.

Relying so heavily on a system like Title IX means that those who suffer from trauma must put blame on someone in order to deal with their trauma. This results in three problematic scenarios — victims who want to deal with sexual trauma that cannot be pinpointed on one person; victims who take their trauma to judicial bodies under Title IX and do not win their cases, thus not receiving closure; or in rare cases victims “exaggerating” the timeline of a case, resulting in the unfair blame of someone who did not commit a crime.

The legal system deals with the literal, not the psychological. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Sexual harassment can qualify as discrimination under Title IX if it is ‘so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.’” This might include extreme examples such as the Brock Turner case (in which, I might add, the perpetrator did not spend much time in jail). But Title IX cannot grapple with the fact that sexual trauma is not always objective. There are so many other variables that influence whether or not a person understands an event to be traumatic — mental health, socioeconomic or familial contexts, exposure to past traumas and sexual experience. A rape apologist would take this fact as an example of the way in which a victim might impose unfair blame upon the accused. Instead, the inherent subjectivity of what might be constituted as sexual trauma indicates that victims need even more resources than just Title IX.

These limits are made clear when looking at one major criticism of Title IX, that survivors might not tell the truth, or that the victim’s memory is fraught or reconstructed ex post facto. These concerns are addressed and summarized in a piece by Emily Yoffe in The Atlantic. In most cases, people who are victims of sexual assault have difficulty proving assault; because many cases go unreported until an average of 11 months later, they often turn into “he said, she said” battles. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to understand “truth” as it stands in the law. A critic of Title IX may find it difficult to prove that the accused is innocent, since the victim will blame the accused; a victim may find it difficult to prove that someone found innocent is actually guilty, since that person would insist upon their innocence. While the truth may only be known between those two parties, it is the psychic truth of the victim that ultimately matters.

This is complicated by the fact that a trauma survivor’s psychic truth may be affected by the processes the individual must go through, such as being placed under a microscope, reliving sexual trauma and dealing with the perpetrator either directly or indirectly. If victims construct a “false” narrative or exaggerate facts under the stress of judicial action and Title IX procedures, this is often a response to their psychic truth as they try to articulate the less understandable subjective trauma that they experience from emotional impact to literal events. Yet judicial action does not heed to the singularity of experience but forces the victim to submit to yet another form of power, one that is legal rather than sexual.

Even without the changes that DeVos has imposed, Title IX is only equipped to help survivors of what the legal and educational systems consider trauma. The national conversation following Title IX’s new restriction highlights the fact that, even intact, Title IX can only provide closure for some victims and reduces sexual trauma to a victim-perpetrator dichotomy that can be harmful to both parties involve.

Fortunately, there are resources at Dartmouth equipped to provide healing that do not rely on such structures of power; such resources include counseling, student organizations such as SAPA and initiatives in the arts like galleries and Voices. But with Title IX in danger, we must work hard to preserve these grassroots forms of healing so survivors can have something to fall back on.