I’ve been an advocate against sexual violence for more than 20 years, and I never envisioned this moment in time. Over the past months, hundreds of women and some men have come forward with terrifying accounts of sexual harassment and violence.
We have seen what has happened with Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner and Roy Moore. From Hollywood to sports to politics, powerful men stand accused of abusing their power to intimidate, coerce and physically force women into compliance. Not a day goes by without a new headline exposing the extent of the violence.
The voices of white, prominent women in entertainment and the media have gotten much of the attention, but theirs are not the only stories. Thousands of women of all backgrounds from across the country have shared their experiences on social media with the hashtag #MeToo. They have confirmed what we have long known — sexual harassment and violence can happen to any woman anywhere. Most men who commit these acts are not famous, but they almost always wield power over the women and girls they harm.
By now, we should be clear that the problem is not a few individual men, but rather a culture that excuses men’s behavior while marginalizing and blaming women. We must change society and to do so, we must address the culture that excuses sexual violence before men are CEOs or bosses or hold other positions of power. This early work can happen in schools and on college campuses. Ironically, federal policy is this area is under attack.
In 2011, the Obama administration issued new guidance for K-12 schools and higher education institutions about their responsibilities under Title IX to respond to and prevent sexual violence. Title IX is most well-known for requiring that schools provide athletic options for female students. But it does more than that — Title IX is a key civil rights law that provides gender equity in education broadly. Courts have long held that this includes the right to be free of sexual harassment and violence in educational activities.
The 2011 guidance spelled out the breadth of the problem of sexual assault — there were 800 reported incidents of rape and attempted rape and 3,800 sexual batteries at public high schools in one school year — and clarified the responsibilities of schools to address it, outlining enforcement strategies that schools may use to end sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects. Most importantly, the guidance issued a call to action for the nation, calling the extent of sexual violence in America’s schools deeply troubling. Who could argue?
Apparently, the Trump administration.
In September, Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosJury finds Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty on four counts Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book Republicans look to education as winning issue after Virginia successes MORE announced her intent to rollback these policies. In proclaiming this move, DeVos gave a chilling speech that showed little concern for sexual assault survivors and the protections that help them stay in school and finish their education.
DeVos instead emphasized the problem of potentially false allegations, while saying nothing about the effects of sexual assault and the retaliation victims often face when they report the violence. Lost in her vigor to defend alleged perpetrators was the basic notion that women should be free from the hostile environment created by sexual harassment and violence. Her speech summed up the very attitudes that allow sexual violence to continue unchecked.
To be sure, Title IX and other school-based efforts are only part of the solution. There is much more work to do throughout society, especially to reach the most marginalized survivors and support those most likely to be disbelieved. Still, if properly enforced, Title IX can help change the dialogue and support the right of survivors to be free from the hostile climate created by sexual violence and harassment.
I’m heartened to know that some university presidents agree and have said that they won’t turn back the clock on sexual violence prevention. We need more leaders to step forward, and we need to connect the dots between early intervention and the prevention of harassment later in life.
The Obama-era White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, led by Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Vilsack accuses China of breaking commitments in Trump-era trade deal MORE, called on schools to help prevent sexual assault before it happens, by educating students and changing social norms that allow bystanders to turn away. Biden created the “Its On Us” campaign to call on everyone — fellow students, teachers, coaches, university officials — to do their part in changing the culture and challenging the beliefs and attitudes that promote sexual violence.
There is no doubt that the powerful men being exposed in the workplace today began their predatory behavior long ago. Everyone outraged by the daily headlines should be equally passionate about stopping sexual violence in schools. Let’s not squander this moment of brave women telling their stories and the powerful being held accountable. The time is now to change the culture at work and in our schools and prevent the abuse before it even happens.
Lynn Rosenthal served as the first-ever White House advisor on violence against women from 2009-2015. Lynn is the policy director for Violence Against Women Initiatives at the Biden Foundation.