July in Washington DC is brutally hot, but last week sexual violence survivors and allies couldn’t be contained to the shady corners of the Department of Education‘s plaza. As part of the Ed Act Now campaign, we’d gathered to deliver more than 100,000 signatures from our Change.org petition urging the department to protect students from assault and harassment on college campuses.
We went to Washington DC because under US law, most notably Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, all of us are guaranteed an essential civil right to access to education free from violence, but these provisions are almost never enforced.
During the event I told my own story of sexual violence on campus, one I can now articulate publicly without fear. While in college, I never talked about my personal stake in this fight. As a student activist I spoke about sexual violence in the abstract, as a statistic, but I never mentioned my own experience.
When someone attempted to rape me my freshman year, I asked my college, Yale University, for help, but instead I was basically advised to keep quiet. I shouldn’t formally report the assault, I was told. Despite my clear and repeated “no”, school administrators cast the whole event as a misunderstanding among friends.
In short, I was told to be a good girl. And for four years, I listened.
Women everywhere are used to being told to accommodate those who wrong us. With family, friends, bosses, and partners, we must always be understanding and flexible, ready to dig deep into our well of second chances and generosity. We must never complain or make trouble.
Our devotion to this image of the good girl particularly infects our responses to survivors of sexual violence. As the media coverage of the Steubenville trial showed, those who seek justice are blamed for overreacting and “ruining the lives” of their rapists. Because of our insistence on the femininity of victims, even male and genderqueer survivors are held to the good girl standard.
We can deconstruct this pressure to stay quiet, but it is very real and very powerful, and it benefits universities looking to avoid scandalous headlines for the sake of reputation, application rates, and alumni donations. I know too well how effective such silencing can be. Even after I had joined 15 classmates to file a Title IX complaint against my school, I stayed largely silent about my personal motivation. When I published an op-ed in my school paper about my experience, I did so anonymously, afraid to anger my assailant.
It’s doubly dangerous that these same expectations of accommodation have infected the Education Department, charged with protecting students from just such abuses. The department knows sexual violence is rampant on American campuses. It has investigated dozens of schools based on student complaints, uncovering blatantly illegal abuses: survivors are told not to report their crimes by school administrators, threatened with expulsion if they speak about their experiences, and forcibly institutionalized.