Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. All opinions are her own.
Earlier today, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put those against campus sexual assault on notice: She’s going to revamp the crucial Title IX policies formulated during the Obama administration. Her mission? To take into consideration the rights of survivors but also the rights of the accused to craft what she believes is a “fairer” system.
But let’s be clear here: Devos seemed more interested in the accused than the survivors. That much was evident during her speech at George Mason University. She went on and on about how these sexual assault cases lack “due process” for everyone involved, how the accused needed to know “their guilt is not predetermined,” and how the “good intentions” of the previous administration weren’t enough.
But one sentence in particular stuck out as DeVos discussed what she sees as “broad” and “ambiguous” definitions of assault and harassment: “If everything is harassment, then nothing is.”
I hate to break it to Secretary DeVos, but lots of things, from catcalling to cyberbullying, are harassment, just as lots of things, from groping to rape, are assault. And guess what? In our misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, transphobic, and homophobic culture, there’s no such thing as calling out “too much” of either. By pretending that there’s some quota on how much harassment can be addressed, denounced, and punished, DeVos is doing a enormous disservice to women in this country, who’ll have to bear the negative consequences while men walk around scot-free.
The fact of the matter is harassment and sexual violence are pervasive for women, and not just in higher education, where studies estimate that roughly one in five women experience sexual assault on campus. Somewhere between one in three and one in four girls are sexually assaulted before they turn 18. When it comes to street harassment, roughly 50% of women in 22 countries reported that they were fondled or groped, and in the U.S., 85% of women who’ve experienced street harassment had their first encounter when they were still minors. Around 18% of grade school girls experienced bullying two to three times the month before, and in the workforce, some surveys say that up to one in three women deals with harassment on the job.
Obviously, all of these forms of harassment and assault are different, and it’s important that they’re addressed as such. That said, all are inappropriate and abhorrent, and they each contribute to a culture where men continuously think they can treat women as they please while women feel like they have no choice but to take it.
Why aren’t women coming forward in droves if this is such a gigantic problem? As if things weren’t already dismal enough, the problem that researchers have routinely pointed out is that so few women report being harassed, bullied, or assaulted because they’ve been told an incident “wasn’t a big deal” or they’ve seen the shame or fallout that can follow. And as much as DeVos touted the greatness of the justice system in her speech, sexual violence perpetrators are rarely charged, tried, and convicted for their crimes, and there are often little to no disciplinary actions for people who commit “lesser” offenses. Who wants to speak out if it could have serious physical, mental, and emotional repercussions with none of the same for perpetrators?
By DeVos’ logic, women should be afraid to speak up because they could be seen as too much of a victim, not the “right” type of victim, or God forbid, victimizing the people harassing or assaulting them. In her address, DeVos also tried to paint many harassment claims as nothing more than students not understanding free speech, and the head of her Office of Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, recently said without evidence that “90%” of assault accusations were just drunken hookups. In doing so, DeVos and her department tell women of all ages, not just those in college, that hateful speech and “expression” against them, however violent, comes before their safety and self-worth.
So, what can we do? In an era like the one we’re living through, it’s easy to feel hopeless and dejected. But this is the time to keep fighting. DeVos claims she’s listening to people from all walks of life when it comes to campus sexual assault policy recommendations. Let’s make sure we hold up the voices of survivors to the point where they drown out those of supposed “men’s rights activists.” Let’s believe women in our own communities when they say they’ve been harassed, bullied, sexually assaulted, raped, or beaten. Let’s empathize with others who don’t look like us or experience life as we do when they share their stories.
To many survivors and people who work on these issues, it’s easy to conclude that the institutions have failed women and that the culture is what it is. But regardless of what DeVos says or what her final recommendations are, students have the power to change how their campuses handle sexual assault cases. High schoolers can push their administrations to address and punish cyberbullying and harassment. Women in the workforce can continue to fight to make a difference in their offices. Yes, DeVos’ policies will most likely be a setback. But the movement is sure as hell bigger than one Secretary of Education, and if we keep up the good fight, it will far outlast anything she throws into the world.
Let’s break the bad news to Betsy DeVos: What’s happening is in fact harassment. It is in fact assault. Our world doesn’t get better until we take every claim seriously, and we shouldn't stand for anything less.