This is a very difficult post. (And this is only the first week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so buckle up, because in all likelihood it’s all downhill from here.)
I’ve been working within the confines of the collegiate system for six years. My future career path probably includes teaching, likely at community colleges and/or four-year universities. My creative work intersects nearly constantly with sexual assault. I hear a lot of stories. And in the near-ish future, I’ll probably be a mandated reporter.
Let’s get something straight here: I know some stories need to stay quiet. I’m well aware of the toll an assault or rape or even just gendered harassment can take on folks. I know that for a lot of people, the idea of reporting to Title IX goes hand in hand with expected retaliation. I’m one of those people. And whenever I can, I’ll be committed to making sure my friends and fellow victims/survivors/casualties can communicate freely with me about their own experiences, questions, and uncertainties. I’ll make sure you know in advance when I’m unable to keep stories brought to me by certain groups, especially any college students I may teach in the future, confidential. I’ll find workarounds so I’m still available to give advice and support to folks who need it.
On the one hand, Title IX is (for the most part) a great idea. We should absolutely be combatting gender inequality, whether it’s discrimination or harassment or violence of any nature, in colleges and universities. However, I’ve found that the links between mandated reporters and the folks who field Title IX complaints can be stretched too thin. When lower-intensity solutions might be more apt—for instance, when mouthy, young, subtly-sexist undergraduate men in male-dominated programs could perhaps be told by their faculty that their behavior needs to change before they seriously hurt someone—complaints get lost, washed away, and never followed up on.
The crux of all these issues? I think mandated reporters don’t feel like they have power to change their institutional/studio culture for the better without the guidance of Title IX, and I know students aren’t informed about what the system will do for (and to) them if they report.
As we’re getting started here, let’s point a couple things out. If a student reports or mentions a sexual assault or pervasive sexual harassment to a mandated reporter, yes, that has to go to Title IX. Technically, all complaints of discrimination, harassment, or violence/assault against any protected group are supposed to find their way to that office, but students don’t usually know that. Title IX is frequently reduced to a department that’s here to make sure women get to play (some) sports and to keep tabs on all the rapists who are still allowed to run around campus. I myself had to look up (while writing this post) whether or not I am considered a mandated reporter at CalArts. (For the record, by my best estimate, the answer is no, as the “student workers and volunteers” category in their documentation was limited to those whose work directly involves student wellbeing, like RA’s, and I’m just here to grade your homework. But no one gives you a sheet of paper when you sign up for your TA job that says “hey, just so you know, you are/aren’t a mandated reporter,” and for clarity’s sake, I really wish they would.)
CalArts’ Title IX office and I don’t have a real great history. One of my highest hopes for my masters degree was to make it through a school without running afoul of some Title IX snafu or another. That hope was dashed during new student orientation, when the staff of the Title IX office sat us all down in an auditorium for a mandatory presentation on sexual assault and all its evils without providing an alternative for students who have already, y’know, lived through one. I’ve documented that elsewhere. I’ve also found myself in situations that probably should have been reported to Title IX, but thanks to some interesting faculty/admin suggestions, they haven’t made it to that office. I’m still deciding if I’ll file a report before graduation, but I’m leaning towards a no, simply because waiting to report basically eliminates your chances of getting a meaningful outcome.
As far as faculty and non-student, Real Adults™ go, CalArts does pretty well in explicitly stating who you can go to if you want or need confidentiality. They have a dedicated person on staff whose job it is to listen to these stories and (to my knowledge) help students work through the do-I-or-don’t-I questions that surround official reporting, and the counselors and Health Services folks at school also are listed as protected. However, they drop the ball a little in their sexual assault information packet, when they instruct students who have been assaulted to get to safety (which is good) and tell a trusted friend, family member, or faculty member. There is no mention here or at any point that each faculty member is required to report what they are told in this instance (and as we’ve established earlier, if you’ve been sexually assaulted, they have to tell someone, and in some circumstances, they have to call the police, though this varies by institution). There’s also no guidance about when a mandatory-reporting assault takes place—are we free to speak with our mentors and trusted faculty members about attacks that happened before or after we attended school? (Best guess: yes, since I’ve done that on a number of occasions.) Are we able to tell them about an assault that happened while we were home for break or off campus at a non-school event? (Best guess: unclear, but likely not, since CalArts does mention that incidents both on- and off-campus matter to them.)
CalArts also has a concerning line in their Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct Policy (at the link above) encouraging any student to report any instance of discrimination, harassment, or assault to the Title IX office, whether or not it happened to them. This is dangerous for a number of reasons, chief among them that it robs victims of their own agency once again. When you’ve experienced a sexual assault, you’ve forcibly had your own control taken from you. Though I haven’t experienced a peer reporting things that happened to me, my body is already recoiling under me at the thought of what I’d have to go through while I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone besides that trusted friend about my experiences. So, folks, I think it’s important for me to say this: if someone who has been assaulted or raped trusts you with their story, DO NOT report behind their backs. You will likely cause them further trauma.
At ASU, where I did my undergrad, things are noticeably less clear. I can drag you through their policies if you’d like—here’s the general anti-discrimination/harassment policy, ACD401, and here’s P20, a statute out of the Provost’s Office regarding reporting and investigation procedures. For their general Title IX landing page, which is where I started exploring, click here. Despite my best reading, it looks like any student employee at ASU is supposed to be a mandated reporter. I would put good money on the fact that most ASU students don’t know that. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever run across a single document or landing page at ASU aimed at students that clearly communicates who we can and cannot safely report to or how to file a complaint with Title IX even if we wanted to. (FYI: your only options for confidentiality are the counselors and Health Services.)
This was particularly problematic for me when I was a junior and senior and having significant problems with how I was treated by some members of the Phoenix jazz community. (Guys, I know you’re tired of me dragging you under the bus. I know a lot of you are doing your best. But this point is important.) I was in a weird, hostile environment contributed to partly by charged sexual comments, some of which got a little rapey. A big part of it, though, was the general bro culture and, for lack of a more refined term, musical dick-measuring contest that happens when you throw a bunch of nineteen-year-olds together and let them try to play as many notes as they can. I didn’t feel like I was respected as a whole human—I was well-read and assertive, which won me mostly-reasonable treatment, but I was still afloat in the general culture, which was incredibly demeaning to women. I couldn’t (and still can’t) watch my female peers be objectified, dismissed, and hurt and think that my immunity to those issues was somehow deserved in a perverse, sexual way. I watched that culture eat away at women I hold in high regard just as it ate away at me.
And I couldn’t tell their stories, so I told my own. I told faculty how I couldn’t even tell if the treatment I was experiencing was sexist or just a byproduct of the people and the general lack of social standards in peer groups. And as I tried to articulate over the course of the following year both to my friends and on my blog on multiple occasions, what I was looking for was an increase in awareness and accountability. I wanted my male peers to expect better from each other. I wanted it to be unacceptable within the culture of the studio to demean, degrade, and dismiss women, whether they were musicians or not. I wanted the guys to treat each other better so we could root out what was sexism and what wasn’t. I didn’t get those things. I got mandatory-reported to Title IX, who never even bothered to contact me—unsurprisingly, “my community is kind of sexist and our profession as a whole has been for basically its entire history” didn’t rank too highly on their radar. And while I fervently hope they spent that time helping folks dealing with assault and pervasive harassment, my teachers never (to my knowledge) heard back that Title IX wasn’t going to do anything about it. So I put up with the treatment as long as I could, and then I left the jazz program for the sake of my own mental health. Nothing changed.
I was nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one when this was happening. I’m still only twenty-three, but these days I carry myself with more certainty. I don’t look for validation in others nearly as much (though that’s perpetually a work in progress). The culture has changed… some, and by all reports it continues to move in a more productive direction. I have every reason to believe that were I to return to Phoenix (insert foreshadowing here), I would have a very different experience. But I expect some of that has to do with my age and who I run with, rather than because I am somehow more of a person now.
How do we relate all this back to Title IX? Why does this matter? It’s important because particularly in scenes with a lot of faculty-student collaboration (like Phoenix jazz, like CalArts experimentalism, like Los Angeles everything), it’s vital that we as student survivors understand who we can and cannot talk to and when we can and cannot talk to them. I can’t tell one of my teachers that a friend of his did some pretty crappy things to a friend of mine, because there’s institutional overlap. I can’t tell my former professors that they needed to protect some of their students from some of their other students, because there’s no way to do that without selling out a victim. I—and many others—can’t talk to the people we need help from the most because the fear of Title IX mismanaging serious issues (or ignoring them) is too big a risk.
But Megan, you might be saying about now, you talk about your assault all the time. You made a show about it. What gives? It’s a valid question. Here’s my best answer: I talk openly, even brazenly, about my own assault (at least, the one I am 100% sure was assault) because I know these things: one, that it happened long before a college claimed any authority over me, and two, that my statute of limitations is expired, so there’s nothing they could do to me if they wanted to.
There are other experiences, things that might have been assault, that might have been harassment, that a Title IX office might want to know about, that I keep to myself. There are tidbits of information I gain through whisper networks that I’m unable to share with people who are friends with a perpetrator or colleagues with a perpetrator who really should know there’s one in their midst, because the affected party is a student at their institution and even an anonymous tip while we’re away from school isn’t safe for that person.
Because that’s how it can feel, dealing with Title IX: like you’ve already been through something awful, and somebody else is going to take your story and mull through it a million times and use it to do more damage to you, even if it’s just death by a thousand retellings.
And this, friends, is how the Schrödinger’s Rapists in our studios and communities and ensembles slip through the cracks. Because we don’t have a solid, direct way to report that someone might be a threat (like, honestly, what Title IX office or campus police department is going to take that and say, “here are your preventative measures”?), because our professors don’t always feel like they have an ability to be their own line of defense within the institutions they teach at, because students don’t always have a nexus of peer leadership that disseminates honest information efficiently. And until Title IX offices at universities across the country allow teachers (particularly those working in the arts, who regularly interact with the same fifteen-to-forty students) to follow up on the institutionalized gender bias amongst our peers that doesn’t count as important enough to merit a full investigation, we are at risk. ♦
I write a lot (of words and music) about sexual assault and rape culture. If you’d like to learn more about these efforts, please check out Letters from the Aftermath, my larger, opus-ish umbrella project, or face the mirror, my MFA graduation recital about victimhood. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here or would just like to talk to someone who’s fighting the good fight, shoot me an email at megan[dot]dejarnett[at]gmail[dot]com. Thanks so much for reading!