By Paulette Orhii
Head of the Department of Education Betsy DeVos is proposing rollbacks to Obama-Era Title IX protections of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. These changes include cross-examination of survivors, narrowing the definition of sexual harassment, replacing investigations with live hearings, and limiting the Office of Civil Rights’ power to prevent discrimination. The office opened a 60 day window for public comment on Nov. 29, and we responded by informing whoever would listen about the changes and the public comment window. Over and over again, sexual violence advocates urged us to submit public comments. After much thought, here is my public comment.
Though #MeToo and #TimesUp have brought more attention to sexual violence, our movement dates back way before 2017. Sexual violence advocates, Black womxn especially, have been championing public comments on sexual and gender-based violence in the United States since the early 1900s. Rosa Parks made her public comment when she started the first nationwide sexual violence and sexual harassment campaign in 1944 with the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor. Advocates made their public comment when rape crisis centers began popping up across the nation in the 1970s. Over 5,000 survivors in San Francisco made their public comments when they shared their experiences of sexual violence at the first Take Back The Night in 1978. Anita Hill made her public comment when she recounted her testimony of being sexually harassed by current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Student sexual violence advocates made their public comment when they urged CA Governor Jerry Brown to pass the Affirmative Consent bill in 2014. Former President Obama made his public comment with the It’s On Us campaign, which saw the “Dear Colleague Letter” alleviated survivors’ burden of proof by mandating the lowest standard of evidence for Title IX procedures. Our founder Savannah Badalich made her public comment when she founded Bruin Consent Coalition (formerly known as 7k in Solidarity) in 2013. One need only look at our history to hear our public comment.
It’s enough that these efforts had to be made in the first place. The burden historically and disproportionately falls on survivors to advocate for justice long overdue. Not only is this process repetitive and tiring, but it is triggering for many with traumatic personal experiences. #MeToo has given the public the impression that survivors ought to share their stories and advocate for themselves if they want justice. As a result, justice is dangled in survivors’ faces in exchange for their trauma. This is why despite Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s coerced public comment against her abuser, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court anyway. Survivors have repeatedly said no to rape culture. Because of this, the Department of Education’s public comment window is performative at best and gaslighting at worst. Furthermore public comment is rarely a fair exchange; it’s peak liberal feminism. Liberal feminism adheres to the justice system in hopes that one day our broken democracy will miraculously do something right. It champions individualistic efforts and ignores structural barriers. The fact that womxn, people of color, disabled people, sex workers, and LGBTQIA+ identified people are more likely to experience sexual violence proves that this injustice is rooted in structural inequalities. Barriers such as heterosexism, racism, classism, and ableism further compound people’s experience of sexual violence. In liberal feminist advocacy, justice is guaranteed to be slow. No wonder #MeToo fails to represent male, queer, and/racial minority survivors: Often and understandably, there is too much at stake for minority individuals. Contrary to liberal feminist interpretation of intersectionality, radical Black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw argues for an intersectional approach to dismantling systems of oppression. Submitting a public comment will not change the system until every public comment is equitably and undoubtedly heard.
This is not to say that nothing can be done. As someone who does not identify as a survivor, I have learned in my work as a sexual violence advocate that a survivor’s story need not be shared to be heard. I do not need survivors to publicly proclaim and relive their traumatic experiences to know that sexual violence is a serious problem. I know just by living in a society that promotes rape culture. I know just by being raised, distinctly from my three brothers, to protect myself. I know just by feeling vulnerable at night. I know just by having to repeat myself when I say “No.”
Despite the pervasiveness of rape culture, our work is not hopeless. UC universities will adhere to Obama Era Title IX policy, and rightfully so. However because I have the privilege of not having suffered personal trauma related to this issue, I will submit this public comment and many more in the future. I urge everyone with such privilege to do so as well by denouncing rape culture and actively supporting survivors. Communities can foster safe spaces for survivors through grassroots organizing and promoting confidential resources such as CARE, CAPS, and the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, and non confidential resources such as Title IX. UC can improve resources through allocating desperately needed funding to CAPS and CARE, increasing EDI and UCPD transparency and accountability, and requiring professors to include resources on their syllabi. But lastly, and most importantly, we need a radical approach that demands reform. We don’t need to submit a public comment, and it’s not enough to vote in 2020. We need a bottom up approach that puts the power back in survivors’ hands.
To Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education, here is the public comment you asked for. To these rollbacks, I join survivors everywhere when I say: “No.” Let’s all do better in 2018.