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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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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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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