By LB Klein, MSW, MPA
As I recently attended orientation for my doctoral program, I’ve been reflecting on the seismic shift in how campuses address sexual violence from when I attended undergraduate orientation. Over the past several years, the manner in which we talk about sexual and relationship violence and stalking on campus has fundamentally shifted. Everything related to interpersonal violence on campus has been coded as “Title IX.” This is due to the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter explicitly applying the Title IX educational amendment that prohibits sex-based discrimination to gender-based violence. So much has changed since I first attended university orientation back in 2004.
To inform a recent research study I conducted with my colleagues Jill Dunlap and Drew Rizzo, I conducted a series of interviews with campus-based advocacy and prevention professionals around the country. As I attend orientation five years after the Department of Education sent the Dear Colleague Letter, I have been reflecting a lot on one participant’s words:
“We’re having a cultural moment right now. Expectations have fundamentally shifted in the past five years around campus sexual violence. It’s possible to use this energy as a lever for broader change. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way that things were in 2010.”
This momentum continues to build. It is incredibly exciting to be a part of this cultural moment that has the potential to inspire significant change on campuses. Back when I attended orientation as an undergraduate student, our orientation programming consisted of a reenactment of an incident of sexual violence. The only dedicated resources on campus were student-run, with little support from the institution beyond the kind-hearted volunteerism of a couple of faculty and staff members. As a student activist, I worked hard to bring attention to these issues, and to do my small part to achieve the kind of attention that campus sexual assault receives today. I did not think that I would see this level of attention to issues of sexual assault on campus in my lifetime, let alone in less than a decade.
While the new elevation of sexual violence to a “Title IX issue” has shifted our practices, there are also dangers with this approach. Another colleague I interviewed for our study pointed to the challenges of this recent shift:
“Sexual violence is being treated like a new epidemic taking campuses by storm rather than the endemic societal issue it is. On campuses in particular, there is an increased challenge in separating prevention programming from policy programming. They are being conflated in educational programs, but the pedagogy should not be the same for both. ‘Because the policy says so’ does not change attitudes or culture.”
As my colleague pointed out, we cannot equate legal compliance with addressing the complex set of issues around campus sexual assault, which require a multifaceted response. A “checking the boxes” framework that centers on compliance can be at odds with the fundamental belief of a prevention approach: sexual and relationship violence and stalking is not inevitable. In order to work toward ending gender-based violence, we must truly believe that violence is preventable. As a college student, my peers and I wanted to eradicate rape culture on campus, to ensure survivors had confidential spaces facilitated by highly-trained professionals, and to have prevention programming—not just awareness-raising and scare tactics. We were not that different from many college students today, in that few of us would have considered legal systems the answer to the pervasive issue we saw affecting so many of our classmates and friends.
Title IX language centers violence as a civil rights issue. While this is incredibly helpful in ensuring a timely and appropriate response after an incident of violence occurs, few students are experiencing a sexual assault and considering it a civil rights violation. That can lead community members to only recognize as assault those forms of violence that satisfy their existing definitions for violence. These definitions tend to include less common acts, such as stranger assaults, kidnapping, murder by an intimate partner, use of a weapon, etc. More than a decade has passed since I was an undergraduate student activist, but we are still trying to help people define the continuum of violence and to place blame where it is deserved: with the perpetrator.
In addition, guidance on prevention efforts is actually not included in Title IX. While the Dear Colleague Letter mentions prevention, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE) or Violence Against Women Act 304 (VAWA 304) is actually what provides guidance on prevention. The language contained in Campus SaVE/VAWA 304 provides a powerful point of synergy between compliance and prevention: when read closely, it mandates prevention best practice through the definitions it establishes. As I have transitioned from student to professional and back to student again, I have seen how much our systems for disseminating prevention programming have become tied to compliance with laws. While this prioritizes the issue beyond what I could have imagined at age nineteen, it also creates new challenges for prevention professionals.
While my thinking has evolved since I was an undergraduate student activist, I now seek to leverage our new opportunities while keeping a student activist’s perspective in mind. Luckily, Campus SaVE/VAWA 304 provides process but not outcome mandates. It is informed by a public health approach, not one that asserts the possibility of checking a prevention “box.” There is but one simple paragraph about prevention in Campus SaVE/VAWA 304, which states that campuses must provide:
“Primary prevention and awareness programs for all incoming students and new employees including safe and positive options for bystander intervention, information on risk reduction to recognize warning signs of abusive behavior, and ongoing prevention and awareness programs for students and faculty.”
If we take a deeper look, the committee that crafted this language provides in-depth definitions for some key terms that can often be misunderstood. As a student activist, I would have been thrilled to be able to point to legislation that provided guidance on prevention best practice. Campus SaVE’s definitions prescribe public health processes, including community engagement, sociocultural relevance, assessment, and attention to social-ecological approaches that include diverse stakeholders and more groups than they appear to include on the surface.
For example, when I was going through orientation thirteen years ago, our programming centered my reducing my risk as a woman for being sexually assaulted. I even received a “safety whistle” (sometimes called a rape whistle) in my orientation packet and was told to not walk alone at night, even though I had a required night lab. However, these new regulations shift that problematic definition of risk reduction(emphasis mine):
The term risk reduction refers to approaches that seek to mitigate risk factors that may increase the likelihood of perpetration, victimization, or bystander inaction. Risk reduction focuses on helping individuals and communities address the institutional structures or cultural conditions that facilitate SV, DV & stalking to increase safety.
Cultural and structural changes, as well as taking a bystander approach to prevention, are even a part of a definition of a term like “risk reduction”— a term that would have made me cringe in college. We are making progress.
Compliance through a prevention lens means leveraging new legislation that reflects the comprehensive approach needed to achieve our ultimate goal of ending gender-based violence. To do so, we must work on multiple levels and include everyone in our prevention efforts. The community and structural level shifts that my student activists peers and I demanded are still needed. Thirteen years ago, I remember feeling the opposite of welcome as someone who survived sexual violence before I arrived on campus. Five years ago, as a campus advocacy and prevention program director, I remember immense pushback on simply including a line about resources for sexual assault survivors in orientation materials. Now, as a doctoral student, I am grateful to arrive on a campus at which I can clearly find a cogent policy and locate well-trained staff working to prevent and respond to violence. I hope that the Class of 2050 has a lot to take for granted.
LB Klein, MSW, MPA has dedicated her professional and academic life to ending gender-based violence, supporting survivors, and advancing social justice. She is a Lead Trainer and Curriculum Development Specialist for Prevention Innovations Research Center. She frequently travels around the United States and Canada, and is based in the Raleigh-Durham area, where she is pursuing a doctorate in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.