by Jorie Dybcio
In April of 2016, students rattled the North Park campus community. Bed sheets, underwear, tampons, and pads were strewn across campus with the message "What if students were as uncomfortable with sexual assault as periods?” The purpose of these displays was to encourage conversations about how the community can battle the tragedy of sexual assault.
The week long demonstration led up to a campus discussion which brought over 45 people, and lasted for over three hours. The talk was centered around Title IX and how it should be better implemented, as well as how we can stand together to support victims. The next day, students gathered on The Compass to rally, march, and share stories. Several students came out as being victims of sexual assault for the first time at the rally, creating a safe space for survivors. The Sexual Assault Awareness week made a lasting impact on the North Park community: the conversation continued and in the Spring of 2017, an art show was arranged that displayed works of poetry, paintings, and even a “Super Woman cape" to display the power of art in healing and uniting the campus to stand against assault. Spaces have been established to have effective discourse on the issue and while these conversations are essential, efforts to fight this battle outside the campus community seems two-fold with our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' plans to rollback Title IX.
Title IX is an imperative addition to the Education Amendments of 1972, ensuring that schools are not using federal money to allow sex discrimination, and also protecting individuals from such. Title IX is defined as “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Title IX provides important protection from sexual harassment and assault.
Activists fear that just as there is finally work to get Title IX enforcement right, DeVos' new Title IX agenda will discourage schools from taking the proper action against convictions, which would further sweep the issue under the rug. A RAINN statistic asserts that 23.1% of college women and 5.4% of men will experience sexual assault. Only 1 in 30 are reported as falsely accusing a perpetrator, however that number may be even lower. Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of varying definitions of assault and inconsistent protocols.
DeVos’ idea for Title IX would normally be accepted if it was a different Secretary for a different Administration. Trump’s presidency has cultivated the idea that victim’s stories are not valued, causing moral peril that sexual assault is being ignored by the government. Such ideas as Title IX micromanaging college student’s sex lives (a claim made by a supporter of DeVos’ agenda) are creating unease concerning the rollback. DeVos’ agenda simply does not have the right timing, coming right after a president who has bragged of his previous sexual violations during the election process.
However, women and men are proving they stand against DeVos in her decision. A new hashtag has made way around the social media world: #MeToo, encouraging women to come out about their sexual harassment or assault stories. The movement has spread rapidly, even female Senators like Elizabeth Warren, Claire McCaskill, Mazie Hirono and Heidi Heitkamp came out with their stories. The hashtag exists in hope that it will magnify awareness of the issue.
The movement existed even before any hashtag did. In 1997, activist Tarana Burke had met a 13 year old girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather. Burke, who was left speechless, decided to speak out by helping victims of sexual harassment and assault through her nonprofit MeToo. "On one side, it's a bold declarative statement that 'I'm not ashamed' and 'I'm not alone.' On the other side, it's a statement from survivor to survivor that says 'I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I'm here for you or I get it”, Burke explains. The hashtag following Burke’s efforts started with actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet on October 15th, summoning a wave of followers sharing their own stories. Each individual story tells victims that they are not alone.
At the end of the day, DeVos’ decision is not what dictates campus culture, it is up to each of us as individuals to fight against the issues of sexual assault and harassment. In fact, politicians may be the ones making the laws but that does not mean they can create laws on how we empathize and relate to one another as human beings. We will continue having conversations to discourage victim blaming and educate each other on proper bystander intervention. Together, it is possible to decrease the number of victims and perpetrators. North Parkers will continue to say MeToo until it does not have to be said anymore.