The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Urging the Biden Administration to Change Rules for Colleges on Responding to Sexual Assault

Illustration of scales of justice against an abstract rainbow-colored backgroundSenior Research Scientist Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., read an excerpt of the following testimony at a public hearing on Title IX held by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on June 11, 2021.

The hearing invited comments on the Biden administration’s decision to rewrite the Title IX campus sexual misconduct rule finalized under the Trump administration. Williams testified that those amending Title IX policies must consider rigorous, peer-reviewed research to ensure that women are given equal access to education and cited federally funded studies including her study of college responses to sexual assault on campus recently completed with colleagues April Pattavina, Ph.D., Alison Cares, Ph.D., Nan Stein, Ed.D., and Mary Frederick.


It is critically important for the Biden administration to change the Title IX rules promulgated by the prior administration not only to assure women’s equal access to education, but also to contribute to a change in the culture that, currently, at best minimizes and at worst encourages sexual violence, physical abuse, and sexual harassment of women and girls. President Biden knows these issues well and it is on us to foster governmental and community efforts designed to end violence against women and to take decisive action to hold perpetrators accountable.

The new Title IX rules set into place during the previous administration removed longstanding protections to survivors, access to support measures and accommodations, and requirements that schools respond to all violence that creates a hostile environment, whether it occurs on campus or off. While I applaud the inclusion of dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault, I wish to express my strong opposition to the inclusion of the language that sexual harassment involves “unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.”

New guidance should reaffirm that Title IX offers a wide range of supportive measures and remedies that schools must provide survivors, including robust protections against retaliation, and that ensure complainants and respondents have equal procedural rights in school investigations and disciplinary proceedings addressing harassment.

The new regulations were misguided in the requirement that colleges hold live disciplinary hearings during which those who have been sexually assaulted and those accused of assaulting them present live testimony and can be cross-examined. That is not good for students and is likely to create a more litigious and adversarial process. Such a process would create an opportunity for more personal attacks than are present even in the criminal justice system, while pushing colleges to behave like that system.


Requirements for colleges to adopt criminal justice-like procedures will have a chilling effect on reporting and help-seeking.

Indeed, the criminal legal system is rarely effective in achieving justice for victims of sexual assault. I have studied this issue extensively and am familiar with the many obstacles that victims face: Most do not report sexual assault to authorities to begin with, and those who do face a secondary victimization as they must recount their experience repeatedly to police, prosecutors, and other court officials. Challenges to victim credibility come on many fronts and many complaints are discounted or the cases are dropped before adjudication.

Requirements for colleges to adopt criminal justice-like procedures will have a chilling effect on reporting and help-seeking. Few complaints will move forward, and the safety of students and their access to an education will be further jeopardized. A criminal justice model also does not make sense for colleges, whose mission is to educate, not adjudicate. Their goal is to foster norms against sexual violence and harassment, but they will end up being complicit in the re-victimization of those who report.

Our research team has examined the policies and processes that colleges and universities use to address sexual assault complaints. Along with colleagues and funded by the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, I recently completed a project on Responding to Sexual Assault on Campus. In the course of our research on 969 colleges across the US, we spoke to dozens of Title IX coordinators, many of whom felt strongly that the way they handle sexual assault cases—including sanctioning—should be in part an educational process, in keeping with the mission of their institution to educate. Addressing complaints by holding hearings and cross-examinations does not fit with that mission, and it is also inconsistent with how colleges handle other violations of student conduct codes.

The Title IX coordinators faced countless challenges. The greatest challenge for many was building capacity to respond to reports of sexual assault. They voiced a critical need for more well-trained investigators, strong institutional support, and visibility, including adequate funding, staffing, and training.

Existing research is clear. We know that one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, and such assaults begin for some even before they enter preschool. We have convincing evidence that one in five women has been sexually assaulted while in college and that college-aged women are at high risk for sexual harassment and abuse. And we know that the repercussions of these assaults on the individual women can be lifelong and place financial burdens on our economy and health care system. We also understand that perpetrators who are not held accountable are more likely to sexually assault again and that ignoring the problem of sexual assault contributes to a culture of abuse. We know all this because of decades of high-quality research, including much sponsored by the federal government.

Educational institutions must be held responsible for ensuring safe campuses that are conducive to learning and thriving for all their members, and most institutions take this responsibility very seriously. Decisions to amend these policies must consider rigorous, peer-reviewed research to ensure that women are given equal access to education.


Senior Research Scientist Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., directs the Justice and Gender Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Guest — Abigail Agbomadzi
:being a female is no fault of ours for us to be facing sexual harassment and assault here and there. It is very disheartening bec... Read More
Saturday, 24 July 2021 12:01
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Combating Sex Trafficking of Children and Teens

Window that says Stop Child TraffickingApril is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month. Over the years, our work at WCW has addressed a wide range of critical issues related to these topics. One of the lesser publicly understood issues is the pressing problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and teens, also known as sex trafficking.

CSEC involves adults having sex with children and teens in exchange for money or goods. Contrary to what many may think, it does happen here in the U.S. Domestic sex trafficking of a child can occur without crossing state lines, and it can occur even if the person who sexually exploits doesn’t know that the child is a minor.

The minors involved in the sex trade or trafficking, whether internationally or domestically, should be viewed as victims and not offenders. At times, our social (and even legal) responses to prostituted children and youth often are the opposite, and in many states in the U.S., teens of a certain age who have traded sex for money can be and often are arrested and charged in criminal courts. The exploiters—both the procurers (pimps) and the users (sometimes called johns)—often escape arrest. We must keep in mind that in most states, sexual contact by an adult with a child younger than age 18 is a reportable act of child maltreatment.

Recent trafficking legislation in the U.S. and around the globe asserts that persons under 18 engaged in commercial sex are victims, and that those who are underage cannot be seen as volunteering to be trafficked. Girls may be drawn in as victims of commercial sexual exploitation by the deceits and lies of those who recruit them—the lures of parties, drugs, or even the simple shelter and food that they may also get as part of the barter. Prior research and analyses have presented evidence that teens engaged in trading sex for money do so as a result of desperation or of manipulation by adults.

My research team examined pathways into and out of commercial sexual exploitation in collaboration with researchers, service providers, grassroots organizers, and young women and men who have escaped CSEC. Our project was designed to reflect the voices of the youth themselves, through their narrative accounts of their lives and pathways to CSEC.

We found that exploitation and control are, of course, a major aspect of CSEC. Its primary feature is the status of the exploited person as a minor and sex with this minor is achieved through coercion, manipulation, grooming or force. In many cases it is the manipulation and grooming that draws the young person into the relationship with the exploiter.


From the narratives of the young girls and women we spoke to, we learned that some offenders have an uncanny ability to identify and exploit the needs of girls, especially those with prior victimization histories or who have been thrown away, pushed out, or abandoned.

The power and authority that comes with the older age of the exploiter may be enough to draw a teen into what is sometimes referred to as “the life” (of CSEC). Drugs, force, and violence are more commonly relied upon to make the victim stay. Violence, sometimes directed at others, provides powerful lessons to the exploited teen.

In reality, psychological manipulation is the most common tool used to bring a teen into “the life.” From the narratives of the young girls and women we spoke to, we learned that some offenders have an uncanny ability to identify and exploit the needs of girls, especially those with prior victimization histories or who have been thrown away, pushed out, or abandoned. Those exploiting teens for sex often “romance” these girls—showering them with gifts and attention. We learned that when an older male treats her nicely and “makes her feel like a queen with brand new clothes, fancy cars and hotels …” the teen is then primed for being exploited by others to whom the exploiter sells her for sex. Most commonly, the money is not given to the teen.

Another tool used by exploiters is to threaten to tell the teen’s family members about her involvement and to take photos or use photos taken by others to keep her silent out of possible fear that her family or others would see them. Some pimps provide teens with fake IDs that they can use to get into bars or clubs and if confronted by law enforcement.

In describing CSEC and the behaviors of the exploiters—the child rapists, in effect—it is important not to lose sight of the cultural and societal frame that surrounds the commercial sexual exploitation of youth in the U.S. The attention of a desirable older male may overwhelm all caution in some young women—especially those whose family lives may have placed them at risk for the approaches of such men. Seduction by the exploiter is enabled by the notion that his behavior is part of a repertoire of appropriate male-female relationships: The work of the “pimp” is embedded in notions, still held by many men and some women in the U.S., of what are appropriate male-female relationships.

There are now many programs throughout the U.S. that provide support for victims of commercial sexual exploitation and assist them in exiting this “life,” although more support is needed for these programs. Most critically, their work has expanded to prevention of commercial sexual exploitation through community education in identifying risk and providing support. Some states have changed laws to assure that CSEC minors are viewed as victims rather than as offenders.

Societal notions about this topic must change, as well. This includes changing the social norms that support transactional sex and the fetishization and hypersexualizing of girls. Such changing of social norms is a process that takes time and requires community interventions and ongoing community discussion.


Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her research focuses on the justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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How Asian Women (and Men) are Dehumanized

Professor Lee wrote this reflection the day after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed at spas in the Atlanta area, and shared it with the Wellesley College community. It is posted here with her permission.

Stop Asian Hate photograph by Miki Jourdan. Blacka and white photo of woman holding sign that says Stop Asian Hate. DC Rally for Collective Safety; Protect Asian/AAPI Communities; McPherson Square, Washington, DC.Stop Asian Hate by Miki Jourdan. DC Rally for Collective Safety; Protect Asian/AAPI Communities; McPherson Square, Washington, DC. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. I spent much of yesterday in a spiral of grief, fear, and rage, thinking, among other things, about mace and bulletproof vests, wondering whether Wellesley should provide them for our Asian American students (do you know how many students of Asian descent we have? each one an individual, with their own hopes, fears, quirks, talents, ambitions, with their own sense of humor, their own way of experiencing the world)...

You may have seen or read about the news conference yesterday at which the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson (a monster who is in charge of communication and community relations, unbelievably enough) spoke lovingly and sympathetically of the man who hunted down Asian women in cold blood, driving miles to do so. Throughout the day, this murderer was portrayed by media as innocent, church-going, pious. He loves pizza, drums, going to church. Apparently also Asian women. He was just "having a bad day." Just reached the end of his rope. Poor, good kid! If only those Asian women were not so tempting! (“[It's] a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.")

The names of two of the four Korean women murdered have not even been released (what did they like to eat or do in their spare time, if they had any, I wonder; my 94-year-old Korean mother-in-law also loves pizza). To America (and, yes, even here at Wellesley), Asians are faceless numbers or bodies. Just faceless numbers or bodies: bodies that are sometimes grudgingly tolerated at the table for the sake of "diversity," sometimes held up like a shield to protect white supremacy or used as a weapon to injure other people of color, sometimes fetishized and lusted after, sometimes (most of the time, now) beaten, spat on, or shot. Getting back to the bullet-proof vest idea: I'm afraid to go outside.

To call things "microaggressions" (like being yelled at to "go back where you came from") is misleading. If you've ever experienced one, you know that it's only the tip of a gigantic iceberg of hatred that's coming right at you. Sometimes that hatred boils over; at other times, it congeals into a huge, massive, cruel indifference. Asians suffer or die—so what? Aren't they just funny little people (or sexy little people) who are meant to stand in the background, serve you, not speak or have opinions or lead, god forbid! Supposed to give you nice massages or paint your nails, get out of the way (or be gotten out of the way, with millions of tons of napalm if necessary), and, most importantly, weren't they put on earth to be the butt of jokes everywhere, in public and in private, among liberals and conservatives?

Aren't there just too many Asians, always too many of them? Are we not a horde, a tide, too many to even count? And for us, the psychic cost of knowing that hatred—well, just try to imagine it, if you are so fortunate as not to know from your own experience what it's like to be hated or despised. Reading Asian Americans write about their shame and self-hatred breaks my heart; I can't do it any more.

I am not asking for your sympathy. I'm an old, tenured member of the faculty, and I will be fine. But I needed to express some of this bitterness of soul, as I look for ways to turn my rage and grief and fear into action. I would ask you to think about the people of Asian descent you encounter (as individuals with distinct faces, names, and histories) and to think about how we can extend some of the love and sympathy that was lavished on the white murderer to members of our own community, who have been and will be receiving all the effects of the obscene legacy of Trump.

The police and the media still refuse to call it a hate crime. They take the murderer at his own word that he was not racist: as if to dehumanize Asian people into a trope of "sexual temptation" were not obscenely racist and misogynist. I ask you to please, please, stop denying that racism exists or that it rules our lives, determines where we can and cannot go, and suffocates human potential at every hour of every day for all non-white people (Breonna, George, Tamir, Travis...).

Please use the word when it's called for. Call racism by its name. Whatever your own race, you can call out racism when you see it. It's particularly urgent for white folks to do so; I can't emphasize this enough.

In case it wasn't apparent, some (though not all) of my remarks above are sarcastic. Also, I've been saying these things forever. Thanks for reading.

Yoon Sun Lee, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Wellesley College. She works in several fields: the eighteenth-century novel, British prose in the Romantic period, Asian American literature, narrative theory, and literary theory.

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The Urgency of Ending Violence Against Women and Girls in the Midst of COVID-19

UN women End Violence Against WomenToday, the International Day to End Violence Against Women and Girls, we call for a renewed commitment to this work in the U.S. The UN Women’s executive director has called for governments to make visible at the highest level a “commitment to addressing violence against women and girls in the context of COVID-19.” As we approach 2021 and look forward to a new federal administration in the U.S., we not only encourage our government to act immediately to work to end violence against women and girls (VAWG), but we also remind individuals and communities of the important roles they play in this work.

A commitment to ending VAWG is critical during the COVID-19 global pandemic. We know the facts: Violence against women is a human rights violation of pandemic proportions — and it is exacerbated during times of job loss, economic insecurity, and extended periods of time at home. COVID-19 has brought many stressors into homes across the U.S., and reports of domestic violence and child abuse, including sexual assault, have increased.

Even prior to the pandemic, one in three women worldwide (including in the U.S.) experienced physical or sexual violence, most often at the hands of an intimate partner. VAWG increases when families face economic challenges, including unemployment. Coping with health needs and concerns, grieving the deaths of loved ones, and caring for children have also contributed to higher stress levels, leading to an increase in VAWG. Furthermore, limited interactions with caring communities and a change in the nature and availability of services compound the problem and contribute to the violence that occurs behind closed doors.

We need to be vigilant in addressing violence and abuse and raise awareness on international, national, and local levels. First, we encourage our government to disseminate a strong message calling for an end to violence against women. We recognize that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have a lot on their respective plates right now, most notably the tremendous pressure to respond to the health crisis brought about by COVID-19 and its threat to all Americans. By prioritizing COVID-19 relief, the incoming administration also has an opportunity to begin reversing some of the negative effects the coronavirus pandemic has had in terms of VAWG.

Biden has prioritized ending violence against women legislatively in the past, but this issue needs to be brought to the forefront once more. An important immediate response is to reinstate the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) — originally co-authored by Biden during his days in the Senate, and renewed many times. VAWA supported a National Panel on Violence Against Women (on which Linda Williams served) designed to develop a research agenda to increase the understanding and control of violence against women and has supported quality care for victims while also mandating research efforts to support important violence against women research.

This act last expired in 2019. The most recent version, passed by the House of Representatives, addressed issues of violence against BIPOC women and the LGBTQ community, all of which are critical to combating VAWG today. Passage and reauthorization of a new VAWA will have to overcome the roadblocks previously encountered in the Senate, and its fate may depend on the results of the Georgia runoff races. We urge all government leaders to recognize the importance of a VAWA that is good for all women, children, and families — especially those who identify as BIPOC.

A decisive position is needed to lead us out of this dark time in the history of violence against women. Once we’ve reached the other side of the pandemic, there needs to be a focused effort — supported by ongoing research and community collaboration — leading to a consortium of federal agencies, researchers, practitioners, and survivors that will examine the next steps needed to end VAWG and to address social norms that promote it.

It is also critically important for the new administration to amend the regulations on how colleges and universities respond to sexual assault, not only to assure women’s equal access to education as provided by Title IX, but also to contribute to a change in the culture that currently, at best, minimizes and, at worst, encourages sexual violence, physical abuse, and sexual harassment of women and girls. On this day dedicated to ending violence against women and girls, it is time to stop minimizing the experiences of victims and to take decisive action to hold men accountable, starting at the highest levels of government.

 

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on the justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

Hayley Moniz is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2022 who is majoring in Sociology. At the Wellesley Centers for Women, she was awarded the Class of 1967 Internship for the 2020-2021 academic year, which supports her work with Dr. Williams on the justice system response to sexual violence.

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The New Sexual Assault Response Rules for Colleges Require Them to Behave Like the Criminal Justice System. Here's Why That's a Problem.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosU.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, under CC BY-SA license. This week, new rules go into effect dictating how colleges and universities must respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus. The U.S. Department of Education released the final version of these rules in May, and since then, a number of lawsuits have been filed, some asking for more time to implement them. But as of now, the August 14 deadline still holds, and colleges are juggling the implementation of the new rules with planning for what is likely to be one of the most challenging semesters they have ever faced.

Among other things, colleges will be required to hold live disciplinary hearings during which those who have been sexually assaulted and those accused of assaulting them present live testimony and can be cross-examined. Though there are limits on this process – advisors to the students do the questioning, not the students themselves, and a hearing officer will decide if the questions are relevant – it creates an opportunity for more personal attacks than are seen in the criminal justice system, while pushing colleges to behave like that system. That’s not good for students.

One problem rarely mentioned in discussions of the new rules – which create a more litigious and adversarial process – is that the criminal justice system is rarely effective in achieving justice for victims of sexual assault. As a research scientist who has studied this issue extensively, I’m familiar with the many obstacles that victims face: Most don’t report sexual assault to authorities to begin with, and those who do face a secondary victimization as they must recount their experience over and over again to police, prosecutors, and other court officials. Challenges to victim credibility come on many fronts; those who have a history of emotional or mental health problems, who were assaulted by people they know, in situations that involved consumption of alcohol or drugs, or did not report it immediately tend to see their complaints discounted or the cases dropped before adjudication. (The exceptions are cases that involve serious physical injury or the use of a weapon.) This case attrition happens either because victims have been discouraged from cooperating further or because prosecutors do not see the case as credible, or think a jury will be unlikely to convict.

If colleges are required to adopt criminal justice-like procedures, many of these same factors that contribute to case attrition will have a chilling effect on reporting and help-seeking. Few complaints will move forward, and the safety of students and their access to an education will be further jeopardized. Many victims won’t want to pursue a process that involves repeating their account and personal details in a public hearing at the school where the assault occurred – especially if the person who assaulted them has more power or clout, like a star athlete – and answering questions proffered under the direction of that person. Many will decide, at some point along the way, it’s simply not worth it.

A criminal justice model also doesn’t make sense for colleges, whose mission is to educate, not adjudicate. Their goal is to foster norms against sexual violence and harassment, but they will end up being complicit in the re-victimization of those who report.

Along with colleagues and funded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, I recently completed a project on Responding to Sexual Assault on Campus. In the course of our research on 969 colleges across the US, we spoke to 47 Title IX coordinators, many of whom felt strongly that the way they handle sexual assault cases – including sanctioning – should be in part an educational process, in keeping with the mission of their institution to educate. Addressing complaints by holding hearings and cross-examinations doesn’t fit with that mission, and it’s also inconsistent with how colleges handle other violations of student conduct codes.

The Title IX coordinators we spoke to faced lots of challenges. The greatest challenge for many was building capacity to respond to reports of sexual assault. They voiced a critical need for more well-trained investigators, whether from within their college community, public safety, or external sources. The new rules (in some cases rules which conflict with their state laws and current policies) will require even more resources. Unless Title IX coordinators are provided with strong institutional support and visibility including adequate funding, staffing, and training – all of which will be a challenge at institutions wrestling with responses to COVID-19 – they will have to try to do more with their already meager resources. This isn’t a recipe for thoughtfully carried out processes that result in justice for students.

We’ll learn more over the coming months about the issues that will arise from these new rules. For example, how will the complex interplay of state laws, Federal Circuit court rulings, guidance from lawsuits, and institutional mandates affect the implementation? What effect will the pandemic have? There will be details to iron out, but the movement of Title IX processes toward a criminal justice model is a step in the wrong direction. It is also the biggest threat to ensuring that women are given equal access to education.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on the justice system response to sexual violence. In 2020, she concluded a federally-funded study of college responses to sexual assaults on campus.

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Now More Than Ever, Title IX Coordinators Need Greater Institutional Support

Dhanya NageswaranSage Carson was raped by a graduate student in her sophomore year of college. In an article for VICE in 2018, she recounts the grave trauma she endured as a result. Unable to transfer schools and experiencing a steady decline in her GPA, Carson was on the verge of dropping out. Who played the biggest role in helping her graduate? Her Title IX coordinator, who connected her with free counseling, helped her get extensions on her school work and issued a no-contact order between her and her rapist.

The rights of students laid out by the Title IX Education Amendments Act of 1972 remain a contentious topic in American higher education, as one in four women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault during their college career. In 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos first announced her intention to overhaul the guidance on Title IX policies issued by President Barack Obama, which she described as "skewed against the accused." After reviewing the whopping 124,000 comments on the proposed Title IX guidelines posted in late 2018, the Department of Education released its new guidelines and policies on May 6, 2020.

The content of the regulations themselves is controversial, but no matter how the rules have changed, the individuals responsible for ensuring compliance with Title IX — Title IX coordinators — still strive to do their challenging jobs. Title IX coordinators are responsible for implementing rules that prohibit gender-based discrimination and harassment, and they coordinate the investigation of all Title IX matters, including sexual assaults. Depending on the college or university, they may conduct the investigation themselves or rely on others within their institution or outside it.

Following a wave of student-led activism in the early 2010s and Title IX guidelines newly issued by the Office of Civil Rights in 2011 and 2014, many campuses reviewed and modified their procedures for responding to complaints of sexual assault of college students. But to this day, Title IX coordinators work to end sexual assault on campus while grappling with the sometimes conflicting goals of institutional efficiency and legal compliance. It is argued by some that unnecessary bureaucratic procedures may interfere with the ability of Title IX coordinators to achieve justice that is both fair and prompt. Moreover, some Title IX coordinators are hampered by efforts to protect their college or university from negative publicity.

Recent reports indicate that two-thirds of Title IX coordinators have held their positions for less than three years — many for less than one year. The research I have worked on with Senior Research Scientist Linda Williams, Ph.D., at the Wellesley Centers for Women supports this assessment of the high turnover of Title IX coordinators and, more importantly, that many of them are not getting the support they need. Programs designed to prevent sexual assault have been significantly underfunded across the country, and we found in the course of our research that Title IX coordinators view support from institutional leadership as critical to their success. Such support includes resources, the visibility of the office, and an approach that legitimizes the importance of Title IX activities (reporting, investigation, and adjudication, as well as prevention) as part of an institutional commitment to respond to campus sexual assault.

For many, serving as a Title IX coordinator provides a great deal of satisfaction. They see the work of educating students about sexual assault as meaningful and essential. But implementation of Title IX requirements is a heavy burden, particularly if Title IX coordinators are not sufficiently supported by their institutions. Without that support, ending sexual assault on college campuses — in the midst of a pandemic, and with new regulations to follow — is an extremely difficult goal to achieve.

As institutions work to implement these new guidelines, equipping their Title IX coordinators with more resources is in the best interest of the safety of all campus communities. Now is the time when strong support by institutional leaders is critical to guarantee that no one is excluded from education because of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and that the ultimate goal of ending sexual assault on campus is achieved.

Dhanya Nageswaran is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2021 who is double majoring in Economics and Political Science. At the Wellesley Centers for Women, she was awarded the Linda Coyne Lloyd Student Research Internship for the 2019-2020 academic year, which supported her work with Dr. Linda Williams on the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault on college campuses.

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Less than one-fifth of reported rapes and sexual assaults lead to arrests

metoo movement protestorsIn 2019, Melissa Morabito, Ph.D., Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., and April Pattavina, Ph.D., of our Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative, published findings from a study funded by the National Institutes of Justice that investigated why sexual assault cases fall out of the criminal justice system. In this commentary, originally published in The Conversation, Dr. Morabito and Dr. Pattavina discuss some of the findings from that study.

As experts in criminology and the justice system, we were surprised to learn that a jury voted to convict Harvey Weinstein on two counts of rape and sexual assault.

This surprise was based on our more than a decade of research on the attrition of sexual assault cases from the criminal justice system.

We know that most victims of sexual assault never report their attack to the police. For those that do report, the probability of arrest and prosecution of their assailant is small.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of cases reported to the police do not end in conviction, as evidenced by our recent research on sexual assaults reported to the police in six jurisdictions across the United States.

We found that many cases drop out at the investigation stage, with only 18.8% of rapes reported to the police resulting in an arrest. Slightly more than a third of the arrests of adults ended in a conviction. That’s just 6.5% of investigations.

What we can learn from the Weinstein verdict, and from the #MeToo movement more generally, is that perhaps the time has come to bolster the criminal justice response to sexual assault in ways that give sexual assault victims the procedural justice they deserve.

Melissa Morabito, Associate Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell and April Pattavina, Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation
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Eliminating Violence Against Women

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our research on sexual violence case attrition and why most rape cases do not go forward to prosecution. The way that cases move through the criminal justice system has been a concern to victims, practitioners, and researchers for the last 40 years. Our recent findings on sexual violence case attrition make it clear that most sexual assault reports made to the police do not result in the arrest of a perpetrator or in any prosecution. This isn’t because no one knows who the perpetrator is—it is not a reflection of random stranger-danger. Women are assaulted, raped, and murdered by someone they know much more often than by a stranger. This is true across the globe and yet the response to violence remains weak.

Societal response to reports of sexual violence reflects deep-rooted cultural ideals about women and a feminine ideal. In our research, we found that cases are less likely to move forward when women have engaged in behaviors that signal “risk taking" like drinking alcohol or are of lower status and reputation. It is the “ideal” woman who is more likely to be believed—the conservatively dressed woman, the woman of means who was shopping or walking home from her professional position, the woman whose career and family life reflects strict adherence to social norms. So, even while we celebrate a changing cultural environment that purports that women now have more agency, independence, and are “permitted” to embrace more of the behaviors that have always been okay only for men, women who were out alone and who had been drinking when they were assaulted are less likely to find that the man who raped her is arrested or prosecuted.

Now, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and after a week of more incidents of violence against women—both sexual violence and gun violence--- and amid concerns about the policy changes taking place on college campuses that will make women’s lives more difficult; and accounts of survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced, denied due process, and pushed back against on many fronts, we know we have not yet eliminated violence against women. Further, gender-based violence—violence that happens to women because they are women—is as blatant and as bigoted as violence perpetrated against one religious group. We are talking gender-based violence and femicide. How far have we really come? And what is needed to keep moving us closer to truly eliminating gender-based violence?

We have evidence of positive changes in rape law and sexual violence prevention, in care and support for survivors, and in bringing this issue of gender-based violence to the forefront both nationally and globally. We know that reductions in gender inequality can happen—this may occur when we elect more women to government leadership and we reverse the reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Internationally, there are many leaders, advocates, and research that help us move the action against gender-based violence forward.

Now we must focus attention on turning research into action and promoting the changes needed in the community. Change requires that we not reify one form of knowledge over another. It’s no surprise to advocates that victim characteristics and victim behavior are associated with whether or not charges of rape go forward to prosecution. Recently in Ireland, an individual was acquitted after senior counsel for the defense remarked on the fact that the young female complainant was wearing thong underwear. This led to protests, the display of women’s underwear, and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Meanwhile, it is reported that an independent review conducted by a legal expert who is examining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in Ireland is due at the end of the year. While such data will no doubt be valuable as are similar reports from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., these provide evidence of what women have known all along--that what women wear or what they drink is used to sway the court system and jurors and to reinforce common stereotypes about men, women, and rape.

Clearly we need to assure that funds for implementing prevention programs and innovative campaigns directed at ending violence against women are available, and that such programs and the research conducted on their impact must continue to draw on feminist roots. All such work on gender-based violence also must be informed by intersectionality—the product of Black women’s activism and scholarship. For example, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement that later became a global phenomenon to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society. #MeToo supports all who experience sexual violence and grounds this work in the real experiences of all women—young and old, Black, white, and brown, rich and poor. Research, undertaken in a setting that allows the linking of activism with the research, and that highlights the importance of data as a social change agent, is a necessary step to ending gender-based violence. A call to link activism and research should not be confused with activist research that seeks to prove a particular hypothesis. Sound principles of scientific research must be followed. However, we must assure that the voices of survivors and the skills and approaches of grass roots organizations underpin this work. These efforts are critical to success in eliminating violence against women and girls in all communities across the globe.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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Stop Pretending Sexual Assault Can't Happen in Your School

This commentary by Nan Stein and Bruce Taylor was originally published by Education Week on October 4, 2018.

Christine Blasey FordThe sexual assault allegations leveled by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have consumed the country. The events as described by Ford are not an anomaly for U.S. teens. As researchers, we know that there is a high prevalence of sexual assault among teens today and that schools are not implementing effective strategies to address this kind of violence. But the data haven't always been available—it is only in about the last two decades that we can reliably measure the prevalence of sexual assault among teens.

We are researchers, not psychologists—one of us (Bruce Taylor) is a criminologist, the other (Nan Stein) is a former middle school teacher who focuses on curriculum development and teacher training. With the support of grant funding from the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, we have spent the last 10 years conducting research on school-based interventions that has taken us into middle schools in the Cleveland suburbs and New York City. Using rigorous scientific data, we have created interventions designed to prevent the kinds of behaviors Christine Blasey Ford described in her testimony—and they have been shown to be effective. Our 2010 study, "Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School," was one of two evidence-based community-level primary prevention strategies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified in 2014 as effective at reducing sexual violence.

The general public's opinion of sexual violence is largely shaped by high-profile crimes they encounter in the news. In 1989, three high school football players from Glen Ridge, N.J., sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped girl. For years, these boys had been throwing wild drunken parties. Yet, they never got in trouble until there was a rape—their conviction came four years later. In 2012, there was another incident that garnered a lot of attention. In Steubenville, Ohio, the rape of a drunken female teenager by two drunken high school football players at a party gripped the nation; the boys were later convicted of sexual assault. The incident was recorded by some of the partygoers, and images were posted on social media.

Sexual assault, including the incidents above, can have a devastating impact on its victims. Although it can take years or decades for victims to begin to address the trauma and come forward to report the incidents (as we are currently witnessing), the rumors and whispers may begin the following day at school, in the hallways, and over lunch—even when some of the participants were too drunk to remember anything. The underreporting of sexual violence has been documented by researchers extensively. According to a 2017 report from the Justice Department, only 23 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police.

In the early 1980s, when Ford alleges her assault occurred, there weren't many surveys of teenagers focused on either perpetration or victimization of sexual violence by their peers. For example, one of the nation's largest youth surveys conducted by the CDC did not start measuring sexual violence until 1999. Perhaps officials doubted that sexual violence among teens happened, or they assumed it was only perpetrated by strangers carrying a weapon who jumped out of a dark alley. It certainly could not have happened among privileged white kids, perpetrated by good white boys who attended private schools where the dress codes require jackets and ties.

Today, we find ourselves swimming in statistics from an abundance of surveys measuring sexual violence among youths. Based on the CDC's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 10 percent of high school students were sexually assaulted in 2017, with females (15 percent) experiencing higher rates than males (4.3 percent). This was in line with another national survey: An analysis of 2003, 2008, and 2011 National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence survey data of 15- to 17-year-olds found that between 12 and 18 percent of girls and about 3 percent of boys were victims of sexual assault.

When it comes to dating, the rates of sexual assault are even higher. In the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence conducted in 2013-2014 for dating youth 12-18 years old, funded by a grant from the Justice Department, the researchers found a sexual assault rate of 17.8 percent for girls and 17.3 percent for boys. The high rate of sexual assault among teens is of particular concern because our research has found that it is often a precursor to intimate partner violence.

There are at least three steps that schools can take to address sexual violence among teens.

1. Implement evidence-based effective interventions. In addition to the approach we laid out in "Shifting Boundaries"—which combines classroom lessons with schoolwide interventions addressing sexual harassment as a precursor to teen dating violence for middle school youths—other programs have been recognized for their efficacy, including Safe Dates (a school-based teen dating-violence prevention program for 8th and 9th graders); Coaching Boys into Men (a program where high school athletic coaches promote respectful behavior among their players to prevent sexual assault); and Bystander Intervention (an approach where bystanders are trained to interrupt potentially harmful situations).

2. Implement schoolwide interventions—not merely classroom lessons. The key components of our evidence-based Shifting Boundaries intervention include working with students to map safe and unsafe areas of the school so that staff can make necessary modifications to prevent violence, creating quasi "stay away" or restraining orders to protect victims, and saturating the school's hallways with messages and posters on safe teen relationships.

3. Conduct staff training. All faculty members and staff should understand the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault among teens and how to implement evidence-based strategies.

You might think that school districts would welcome these interventions. However, as researchers, we have experienced resistance, particularly from high-performing, privileged schools when attempting to introduce prevention programs. Despite scientific survey data demonstrating the pervasiveness of sexual violence among teens, some school districts apparently still believe "sexual violence can't happen here." What other evidence do they need to start taking this problem seriously? It is time for K-12 schools—private and public—to begin to implement evidence-based strategies designed to address sexual assault.

NanSteinBruceTaylorPhotosNan Stein, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she conducts research on sexual harassment and gender violence in schools. Bruce Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in public health at NORC at the University of Chicago, where he studies the etiology of violence and evaluates violence prevention programs.

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"The Hunting Ground”—Ground zero for changing social norms on sexual assault?

This week we recognize the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Indeed, gender-based violence impacts women across the globe. Rape in conflict zones or of refugees or of child brides are all horrific and this day makes it clear that violence against women is still a pressing problem—and this includes sexual violence on college campuses.

Today we applaud the courageous women who created, produced, and spoke out in the film “The Hunting Ground.” This movie makes it clear that although sexual assault on campus occurs in the ivied halls of elite U.S. institutions (as well as in the big 10, in religiously affiliated, secular or community colleges) it is not simply one of those #firstworld problems which we must apologize for worrying about in the face of all the tragedies in the world.

“The Hunting Ground” demonstrates the extent to which sexual assault on campus represents not only the evil one person commits against another but also places the harms of campus rape within the context of the institutions. When an institution does not take steps to end sexual violence then they can be seen as providing institutional support for rape and rape culture. While, of course, not all schools fail in this way, many do and the work of the organizers of www.endrapeoncampus.org has brought this to the attention of us all.

The sexual assault of college students—of women and some men—is a denial of access to education. If permitted to continue it relegates women to a marginal status and basically is a way of telling women to “go home.” It gives this message to some women: “If you can't take what is being handed out then you can give your seat at this university to someone who can—to a male” (the male you took it from when women decided they should be able to seek an education so they could become lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, writers, political scientists--- be women who will make a difference in the world.) Carol Tracy (executive director of the Women’s Law Project, who was honored by the American Society of Criminology just last week for her fight for justice) called the women of “The Hunting Ground” courageous and amazing. Last week Carol helped me to recognize and, yes, maybe even believe, that this film and more importantly the work of these women is the ground zero for a cataclysmic change in how we respond to rape and a path to changing social norms about rape. Certainly this is a turning point in the lengthy battle to stop sexual violence and to end rape. As such, the impact will hopefully go far beyond campuses and the U.S. It is a strong message to victims and survivors throughout the country and throughout the world that they are not alone.

Since Carol and I started working in this field in the early 1970s there has been much change. Many steps forward. In the 1970s there was almost no recognition of the seriousness of the problem of rape for women and men of our land (well except for the brutal legacy of the way black men suspected of rape of white women were treated—an important part of our history we need to return to on another day because I suspect it plays a role in the conflict around men women and rape in the U.S. today.) In the early 1970s Carol was involved in a sit-in against rape that occurred at a fraternity and I was involved in research that led to the discovery that rape was much more likely to take place at the hands of someone known to the victim than to involve a stranger.

Since the 1970s we demonstrated the importance of evidence and rape kits (and then some folks “forgot” to test them) and rape crisis centers were started and researchers began to pay attention to this crime and to victimization. Laws were changed and victims were supported in the process… But in many ways it had begun to feel like we had hit a wall on the progress needed to end rape, to find justice for the survivors and to eliminate violence against women. The film, “The Hunting Ground” and the courageous and ground breaking work of Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark and all the survivors who have made their voices heard make me think—change will come ... A new wave is breaking. “The Hunting Ground” is ground zero for changing norms around sexual assault and eliminating this form of violence against women.

Linda Williams, Ph.D. is co-director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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