By Ariadne Wolf
This post represents the opinion of one individual member of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities. This post does not represent the opinion nor perspective of the Committee as a whole, and does not reflect the opinion of the MLA.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses can be difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to navigate. Most of us are immersed in our daily lives as graduate students, including family obligations, unbearable academic loads, and those full-time jobs we make a point not to mention to our college advisors. Adding anything else to that mix can feel like the straw that’s about to break our back, especially if that something else is a #metoo incident.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have a choice. These incidents enter our lives whether we would like them to or not, and once there, we have to figure out what to do. So here are some suggestions to think about before this incident actually occurs, so that if this happens to you or someone you know or that one girl you roomed with four years ago or a friend of a friend’s boyfriend, you’ll know what to say, what to do, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of a legal process intended to protect just about everyone involved except the actual student victim.
- Understand what Title 9 is, and what defines sexual harassment, so you know where to seek resources if gender discrimination or sexual harassment happens to you or to your friends.
.Sexual harassment in an educational or workplace situation is a civil matter rather than a criminal one, meaning you can report the incident and perhaps even sue for penalties but you cannot report the incident to the police and expect them to investigate or bring charges against the perpetrator. Title 9 commonly refers to both a law instituted to protect students from gender discrimination, including sexual harassment, and to the specific administrator or office that handles Title 9 offenses that occur at your specific university. The law typically referred to as simply “Title 9” is a federal civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in any program or school that receives federal funding, which requirement in practice extends to all United States colleges and universities. The Title 9 office at your school might simply be Human Resources personnel who are simultaneously empowered to receive and investigate any reports of Title 9 violations. If you attend a larger university, your school might have an entire office dedicated to addressing student concerns regarding offensive or inappropriate behavior, including Title 9-related problems as they occur. If you or someone you know is sexually harassed, Title 9 is the law that the perpetrator has broken, and the Title 9 procedures at your school represent your institution’s official, structural path to handling these types of issues.
At this point, you might be wondering what exactly constitutes a “Title 9 incident.” What if your Anthropology 101 professor once suggested that primate behavior supports the division of sex roles based on biological gender differences because “women are made to have babies, and men are made to compete over women?” What if you met your World History professor for an advising session after class, and at the end he hugged you goodbye and you felt uncomfortable? What if your editing partner in Creative Writing commented on your poem that “it’s not very good, so it’s a good thing you’re so pretty”? Are all of these instances of gender discrimination? Are none of them? Who decides?
The truth is, definitions of gender discrimination can be loose and very unclear, depending on your specific university’s policy. Definitions of sexual harassment can similarly differ depending on the specific academic and local culture of your institution. Therefore, rather than ask yourself if what happened is “really” an instance of gender discrimination, or whether it was “legally” a situation of sexual harassment, concentrate on how the incident made you feel. Were you able to laugh it off, or to respond in the moment with a pointed question or respond a few hours later with a frustrated rant to your friends? Several days or a week later, are you still thinking about the incident? Do you feel worried about returning to the class or physical space where the incident occurred? Is thinking about it disrupting your sleep or regular habits? If so, then the situation is having a significant impact on you, and is worth reporting.
Another way you might determine whether or not to report the incident is to think about how you might respond if a close friend or a younger sister told you that this had happened to them. Would you be confused about why this seemed like a big deal to them? Would you immediately want to go punch the person who did this, to defend someone you care about? Would your gut reaction be that this kind of comment or behavior is totally inappropriate and not okay? Trust that your reaction in defense of someone else, is the exact same reaction that you deserve to have on behalf of yourself.
- Decide whether you want to report this incident before you speak to anyone whose salary is paid by the campus.
Your professors are mandated reporters for all Title 9 incidents. A mandated reporter is someone who is legally and ethically obligated to report specific types of crimes, or even suspicions of certain types of crimes, if they occur. In this case, mandated reporters of sexual harassment are required to report any instances they become aware of in which a fellow professor, staff member, administrator, or other employee of the university broke the Title 9 law and either participated in gender discrimination or sexual harassment. Other mandated reporters include any staff members hired by the university, which includes your boss, professors, mentors on campus, safety officers, and many of those you might approach for advice and comfort and emotional support. The minute you mention the incident to any of these people, they are required by law to report the situation to the Title 9 office.
That’s fine, if that is the step you want to take. If you have not made that decision, or if you are unsure, or not emotionally ready to do so, that’s fine. You’re allowed to take your time. Do not put yourself in a position where the choice is out of your hands.
- Study up on what Title 9 can do, and what it cannot do.
Title 9 exists to protect students who are engaged in this reporting process. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this protection is that it can feel rather like a gag order. Professors and staff members involved in a Title 9 investigation are not legally permitted to discuss the investigation outside of scheduled meetings. Technically, the victim in the situation is not permitted to talk about the incident outside of these meetings either, particularly not with friends or other parties who work or attend classes on campus. That is sometimes not the most helpful situation for a victim’s mental and emotional state. This also deprives the victim of some control and autonomy over their choices in relation to this event. It’s important to think about these questions, before moving forward and seeing these choices made for you.
Additionally, regardless of how well-intentioned the individuals involved might be, remember that both your advisor and the Title 9 officers ultimately are employed by your university. They will want to minimize the harm done to you, presumably, but ultimately their job is to make sure to minimize the harm done to the university as a whole. That very well might mean “handling the matter internally,” meaning delivering some official or unofficial censure towards the perpetrator of the act, but behind closed doors and in a way that guarantees the public and the media will never find out about it. That means that if your personal goal is to share your story widely, or to see some sort of visible personnel change take place, Title 9 is probably not the best way to go about doing that.
- Consider the potential consequences of reporting.
Is the perpetrator teaching a class that you need to take in order to graduate? Have you already paid for the class, and is there any chance of getting your money back if you drop the class now, even because of a Title 9 incident? Campuses are often not equipped on an administrative level to handle Title 9 incidents, particularly if these incidents take place mid-semester, or in a class for which there exists no equivalent.
Do not assume your campus will reimburse you expenses or fees related to the class. Do not assume that the campus will have the administrative chops to handle the myriad of complex questions associated with such an incident.
None of these questions need deter you, if you think that reporting is genuinely the best option for you. However, these are questions to get clarity about ahead of time. These are points to develop your own strategy around, because your institution is not required to provide you support in navigating the administrative consequences of reporting, and likely will not do so.
- Understand that a Title 9 report does not guarantee punishment, and that you may not be informed of any consequences of your decision to report the incident.
Unless your professor is outright fired, you’re probably never going to find out the outcome of your Title 9 report. Your institution is not legally mandated to tell you, and you will not be a participant in the decision-making process if your institution decides to proceed with some form of official reprimand or punishment. You will probably walk away from the entire Title 9 process never knowing what happened. Is that something you can live with?
- Prioritize yourself.
There is not one single person likely to be involved in the Title 9 process whose actual professionally mandated task is to make sure you’re okay. The Title 9 officials themselves have legal requirements and official hoops to jump through. Your advisor might be called as a witness, and therefore obligated to divulge any relevant details you have given them about the incident. The administration of your institution might individually care about you, but they want to make sure the health of the institution as a whole remains intact.
All of that being the case, you need to watch out for you. Make sure you’re okay. Develop a plan for moving forward that meets your academic and professional needs from this university, as well as your personal emotional and social needs. Make sure you have support off campus as well as on campus. Decide on a strategy for if and when you encounter the perpetrator on campus, both in a group setting and a one-on-one setting. Make your decisions about how to proceed beforehand, so you don’t need to make them in the moment when you’re upset or triggered or angry. Make sure your own well-being is taken care of. Then, and only then, move forward, with an eye towards the future you want to build and towards the person you are now, with all your courage and limitations, all your determination and all your dreams.
You are much, much bigger than this.