Title IX is a federal law that protects people from gender based discrimination. Join us as we talk to two survivors about their experiences with Title IX on their college campuses and explore the complexities of campus policy.
Julie: There was never any justice for him and he's still walking around and I see him all the time and like, it just sucks that we go to the same school, too, because I'll be walking to class multiple times during the week and I'll see him and it'll throw everything off, and no one should have to deal with that. No one should feel unsafe just walking around their own college campus in the middle of the day with thousands of other people there because of this one person.
Annie: I’m your host, Annie, and this is Indelible: a class, a podcast, and a conversation about sexual violence. Today, we’re going to talk about Title IX, a part of university protocol that deals with sexual assault. What happens if you report to your university’s Title IX office? What are some of the problems with the reporting system? How do you know who’s a mandatory reporter? We’ll do our best to answer these questions and more as we talk to two survivors who had very different experiences with Title IX.
As always, we’ll be talking about some heavy topics in this episode, including descriptions of sexual assault, so we encourage you to take breaks as you need them.
Annie: Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination. It was passed as part of the education amendments of 1972 to protect equal access to education, and it’s a vital tool in addressing sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault on college campuses — but too few students know what rights Title IX gives us or how to pursue a complaint. I came to college without any knowledge of Title IX. I had never learned, or even heard, about Title IX. I was an 18 year old freshman on a campus of over 20,000 students and didn’t have the slightest clue about anything regarding Title IX. And unfortunately, I wasn’t alone.
Annie: The actual text of Title IX reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX is just one little sentence, but that sentence has had a spectacular impact. Students who have experienced sexual misconduct — anything from verbal harassment to physical assault — can report to their school’s Title IX office to begin an investigation. From there, the school has a few options. They can support the survivor as they heal by adjusting their class schedule or changing their housing arrangement to help them avoid their abuser. Depending on how the disciplinary hearing proceeds, the school can also punish the perpetrator accordingly, whether that means issuing a no-contact order or expelling them and banning them from campus. All of this is separate from the legal and police systems. Choosing to file a complaint with Title IX is different from pursuing criminal charges.
Title IX exists to help us, but it’s not perfect. Today, we’re going to hear two stories: one from Julie, who was discouraged by her Title IX report, and one from Bobby, who won his case. Let’s listen to Julie’s story first.
Julie: So Chris and I had been friends all throughout high school. We did show choir together and I was a really good friend of his. He and his girlfriend of a while broke up towards the end of high school and I remember I went and got him, like, the largest blizzard from Dairy Queen, and we just sat in my room and he cried and it was really sad, but it was nice to know that he wanted me to be there for them.
Annie: Julie and Chris lost touch for a while, but when they started college at the same university and Julie went through a rough breakup of her own, they reconnected.
Julie: After my breakup, I started reaching out to my old friends and he was one of them that I reached out to, and we started going to dinner on campus together, and we would meet up with friends and go and hang out and it was really fun. He had a girlfriend so it was never romantic or anything like that.
Annie: One evening, Chris said he wanted to talk to Julie about something personal.
Julie: He asked if we could go and stay in my dorm and talk about it, ‘cause it was getting later at night, and I was like, yeah, you know, he lived in a dorm that was a bit farther away and I was like, “You know what, you can stay in my dorm. It's okay.”
Annie: They went to Julie’s dorm and talked for a long time about what was going on in Chris’s life. Julie’s roommate was staying somewhere else for the night, so when Chris began to get physically aggressive with her, no one was around to help.
Julie: Basically he started to take things out and force me to do things with him, and I repeatedly told him no. I think the hardest thing was that I lived—my bed was on the side closest to the bathroom and then it was just empty hall after that, so no one could really hear me. He lifted weights twice a week, so he was very strong. Most of it happened while I was asleep. I woke up to him holding me down, and he covered my mouth and, like I said, he lifted weights. He was really, really strong, and I'm not. I don't exercise. I'm not strong at all. And I was trying to scream, but no one could hear me…. So I eventually was just, it went on for so long that I was just so tired and I, from exhaustion, just fell asleep. In the morning I had no idea what had happened, ‘cause he was one of my really good friends.
Annie: After her assault, Julie did the only thing she could think of to do. She reached out to her school for help.
Julie: I reached out to Victim Services and they basically told me they didn't have anyone available at the time to talk with me. So they defer me to a women's shelter in the area. And the only thing they could offer me was group therapy. And I don't know why, but the idea of sitting in a group of people where the only thing we have in common is the trauma that we've experienced at the hands of other people was absolutely disgusting to me. And I drove to the first meeting and I started freaking out in the parking lot and I told my dad what happened, and I freaked out and I drove back to my dorm.
Annie: At most universities, the Office of Victim Services is a confidential resource that can provide support for survivors of sexual violence—without reporting them to Title IX or the police. They can put you in contact with local women’s shelters, crisis hotlines, or, most importantly, a victim advocate, who is a professional trained to counsel survivors. However, some universities only have one or two victims advocates for a campus of tens of thousands of students, which means that survivors like Julie can sometimes be left with little support. And that’s incredibly frustrating.
Julie: Literally, I went to them because I didn't know where else to go and they were like, “Oh, sorry, we can't help you.”
Annie: After Julie’s experience with the Office of Victims Services, she went to her friends for help.
Julie: And so I had reached out to my friend who was an RA and she actually reported to Title IX. Part of me knew going to her, I was like, “I know that there's a possibility she could say something.” But my, at that point I was like, “I don't even care. I just need, I need someone, I don't have anyone.”
Annie: The difference between a confidential and a non-confidential resource is important to know. A confidential resource, like a therapist or the Office of Victim Services, isn’t allowed to start a police report or share the details of your assault, whereas a non-confidential resource would be required to report to the Title IX office. At most universities, an RA like Julie’s friend is a mandatory reporter.
Julie: So my experience on campus was not fun because a lot of it wasn't voluntary. But when I found out that it had to go to Title IX, I was like, “Okay, maybe something will happen.” And then it didn’t.
Annie: If a mandatory reporter like an RA, professor, or other faculty member reports your assault to Title IX, here’s what usually happens: you’ll get an email explaining the process and requesting that you meet with someone from the Title IX office in person. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to. Title IX may email you a couple more times, but they can’t force you to participate in the investigation, and deciding not to take part in the process is usually as easy as ignoring an email. There are many reasons someone might choose that option. However, if you choose to continue with the investigation, you can schedule a meeting with the Title IX office, discuss your options, and get help with changing your classes or housing, getting a no-contact order, or finding other resources: whatever you need to help you continue your academic life and cope with the aftermath of the assault. However, the bureaucratic nature of Title IX investigations and the length of the process can be unpleasant, to say the least.
Julie: The problem I had with Title IX is that it was so methodical. There's no personal appeal at all, you know? Like when you're talking about a psychologist or a psychiatrist, most people are like, “Psychologists talk about the emotional sides and the psychiatrists just give you the straightforward, cold-cut medical side.” And that honestly was what it felt like with Title IX. It was just that like that pure, “Here's the legality of everything, here's what we can realistically do for you. Okay.” It's just like they couldn't do anything for me. And they could have, they could have, but they didn't.
Annie: Title IX, as we discussed earlier, is actually just one small sentence. But with additional guidance from the Office of Civil Rights on how the law can and should be implemented on our campuses, institutions have developed various complex interpretations of the policy. Part of what makes Title IX so methodical is that the office has a responsibility to treat all students fairly, which means that during the disciplinary hearings, they can’t explicitly support the survivor. They also use more technical language to limit any implied bias, such as referring to survivors as complainants and perpetrators as defendants.
To tell us a little more about Title IX interpretation, we spoke with Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and the founder of the Center for Institutional Courage. Dr. Freyd has worked extensively in the field of sexual abuse and trauma psychology, and successfully fought to change the way her university interprets Title IX.
Dr. Freyd: So the University of Oregon, like so many other schools, had adopted what is sometimes called a mandatory reporting policy, whereby if a student would tell a faculty member, staff member about an experience they had of gender-based or sexual harassment or assault, that staff member or faculty member was obligated to share the information with officials at the university.
Annie: Mandatory reporting policies are now the standard for most universities. Some say that the increased reporting rates this policy brings are worth it—but for survivors, mandatory reporting can be harmful, whether it’s an unpleasant surprise or downright dangerous.
Dr. Freyd: We know from lots of research that after somebody has been sexually violated, it's extremely important to give them as much control as humanly possible over everything that they can have control over, and certainly their own account, their own narrative, their own story. And to take that control away from them, it's almost certainly going to be damaging to people. And when you, you know, take somebody's private information and pass it on, that's taking away control if they haven't said they want that to happen.
Annie: However, there’s nothing in Title IX that says mandatory reporting is required. Although it’s common practice, universities interpret the law in a variety of ways, so if you don’t know your school’s policy, it’s a good idea to look it up. Dr. Freyd was able to change the reporting system in place at the University of Oregon.
Dr: Freyd: So we came up with what I believe is a much better policy, and over a two-year period of intensive work we were able to get it enacted through the system at the University of Oregon. And it's been in place for now more than two years, and as far as I know, as far as I can tell, it’s working very well. And we call it a student-directed reporting policy. And students, when they tell a faculty member about an experience of sexual violence or gender-based discrimination, the faculty member is obligated to first of all give them information about resources, which is basically one website where they can get all the information, but also to ask the student what they want to have happen with their information. Does the student want the faculty member or staff member to help them make a report or to hold it in confidence? And whatever the student says, the faculty member, staff member has to respect and abide by that.
Annie: This is something we want to emphasize again and again when it comes to sexual violence: giving control to survivors is crucial every step of the way. Rape is a crime of power. Everything that happens afterward should be about giving that power back, from their decision to tell one friend but not the other to their decision to tell a teacher but not Title IX.
Dr. Freyd: Some people have said, “Oh, somehow Title IX won't let you do that.” Well, we disagree. And we checked with the Office of Civil Rights, which is the enforcement agency for Title IX, and we did not get any indication this is against the rules of Title IX. Title IX is a very, very general piece of legislation that prohibits sex discrimination. It doesn't have details about mandatory reporting. To the extent there are rules, it's guidance from the Office of Civil Rights. And their guidance has not ever said “every single employee has to be a mandatory reporter.” They have simply said, “some employees have to be.”
Annie: Student-directed reporting policies, also known as responsible reporting policies, don’t force faculty and staff to file reports with Title IX against students’ wishes. These kinds of policies are more survivor-focused and make the reporting system a much more positive experience. It’s important for students and faculty alike to be aware of this option, talk about it, and, when possible, fight for it to be implemented in their own schools.
Dr. Freyd: So, for example, a group of students, with enough of them—you need solidarity—but a group of students, and especially a group of students and faculty can together really make some difference. And, you know, you only have the power you take. And so I worry when I see people kind of being helpless and passive on their campuses, and you might have, you know, administration that are not gonna take the lead, but I bet there are some other groups of people that could take the lead and, and I just encourage people to look into that.
Annie: The University of Oregon’s policy went into effect in 2017. It took a while for it to be implemented, and there was some pushback, but Dr. Freyd says that students, faculty, and the Title IX coordinator have all responded positively.
Dr. Freyd: But overall, I would just say most people hated the old program and they're glad for the new program. I didn't really know anyone who liked the old policy except, sort of, maybe attorneys. I mean, I never found people who loved it. They would say, “we have to do it.” Not, “we want to do it." If you want to teach people about consent, then you need to model it as well. And when you give people the message, “it doesn't matter if you want us to do this or not, we're going to go do it,” that's completely counter to any education that says consent should be respected.
Annie: While it can be unpleasant for a student to go through Title IX if that’s not something they wanted, it’s still a useful tool and can help survivors get the justice they deserve. Let’s hear the story of a student who made the decision to report to Title IX on his own—and won the case. This is Bobby.
Bobby: I did not know of Title IX going into college. I had heard of it on campus as a resource, but I didn't know exactly what it meant.
Annie: Many survivors don’t know about the resources available to them until they become one themselves.
Bobby: I came to the university as a freshman and within the first three or four weeks I had met a junior who was older than I was. And we became friends relatively quickly. We spent a lot of time together and just went out of our way to spend time together.
Annie: Like Julie, Bobby was assaulted by someone he considered to be a friend.
Bobby: So when the topic of flirting came up, I assumed that her flirtatious behavior was just on a friend level and not in a relationship format because she had been with her partner for so long and she was also mutual friends of my partner. So I assumed that there wouldn't really be any conflict there aside from, okay, this person's kind of flirting with me, it's making me feel slightly uncomfortable, but they're not going to actually try anything. This would never happen in a million years. We're just really good friends. Until one night, we were drinking at a party together, a very small, intimate type setting. And I had been served drinks that had more alcohol than I was expecting, and I ended up over-drinking, and that human ended up taking me home, back to my dorm on campus. And this was over fall break. So my roommate was not home and, yeah, she was able to sign my name to get into my dorm…. because it was past midnight. So she signed herself and me into my dorm and we went upstairs and while my roommate wasn't home, she proceeded to get more alcohol out and sexually assault me while I was barely conscious. Although it wasn't a violent incident where I was physically harmed, I lacked any control over my body because I was so intoxicated. And it left me feeling really powerless.
Annie: Bobby couldn’t remember everything, but he remembered enough to know that something was wrong.
Bobby: After some piecing together and discussion with her, I asked her to leave my dorm. And I told her, you know, I'm worried that I've been violated, because I was really drunk last night and I don't think, I think we had sexual contact that was not consensual. I need you to leave. Give me some space, please. She was really hesitant and really forceful about wanting to stay and chat with me more. She did say something that really stood out to me, which was, “I knew you would be mad if you woke up and you remembered.”
Annie: Bobby slowly cut off all contact with her and, after a while, told their mutual friends about what happened. Instead of the support and understanding he was hoping for, some of them took his assaulter’s side.
Bobby: So, I did some fighting with our mutual friends and had to really, I was victim blamed a lot. I was questioned a lot and I lost some of our mutual friends in that process.
Annie: And then he went to Title IX—which made things even more complicated.
Bobby: It wasn't until I went to Title IX that things got really messy. I am one of the few people that has had a positive experience with Title IX overall. I did end up winning my Title IX case against my abuser. So, I try to share specifically just my experience and try not to influence other people's opinions on whether they should interact with Title IX or not, you know?
Annie: After he won his case, Bobby’s abuser was removed from campus and suspended for five years. But despite the end result, his experience with Title IX was far from perfect.
Bobby: I was super intimidated going into Title IX because I knew that it was going to be a really difficult and emotionally debilitating process that would affect me inside the classroom, too. So I knew it was going to be some work. I just didn't know how much work it was going to be.
Annie: From beginning to end, Bobby’s Title IX investigation took about six months—far longer than he was hoping for. Part of that delay was because his assaulter appealed and then appealed again, but another reason his case took so long was because the Title IX office at his school wasn’t trained to work with trans students.
Bobby: Some of my transness was also confusing to Title IX I think. My gender identity did affect my Title IX experience, because they weren't as familiar with some of the context that the trans community is familiar with. So for example, the use of gender-affirming devices like packers or chest binders. I had to explain a lot of those masculinizing techniques that commonly trans people use to affirm their gender. The Title IX officers that I worked with didn't seem to know about that experience. So I had to literally Google, “what is a packer for,” for trans people because they didn't believe me when I said it's a gender-affirming device.
Annie: Thankfully, the people at the Title IX office were willing to learn. They asked questions and read the materials Bobby sent them. Meanwhile, the person who assaulted Bobby continued trying to use his being trans as a weapon against him throughout the case.
Bobby: My gender identity was used during Title IX as a way to harm me, even down to the medication that I use. I take testosterone now. That was used against me as a way to assert that I was the abuser, that I—she claimed that I had been aggressive to her, sexually aggressive to her in some nature. And that testosterone was the cause of that—that it is, quote, “highly associated with increased aggression and sexual aggression,” which is just transphobic. So I did experience some of that, and I did really have to back up, you know, that packers aren't used for sexual purposes all the time. So that was pretty awkward having to explain some of those things.
Annie: Statistics vary, but according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, nearly half of all transgender people have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime. And because many school officials aren’t well-informed about this topic, trans survivors rarely have equal access to the resources that cisgender people do—cisgender meaning people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Bobby: My gender identity played a huge role in the perception of my experience because I don't have any male friends, let alone trans male friends, who have been through the Title IX experience at all. I don't even know if I have any male friends who have come forward to me about being sexually assaulted. And holding a male identity while also holding a trans identity puts me at a higher risk of being invalidated. Just because that's kind of the social climate that trans people face right now.
Annie: Trans people face obstacles that cisgender people don’t face on a daily basis. Part of that transphobia is societal and institutional, meaning that they face difficulties navigating laws and systems such as Title IX because they are inherently created for cis people. Another issue is that trans narratives are rarely discussed or represented.
Bobby: And I think it would've been really impactful to me if I had just even met another trans person who was open about being a survivor. Would have been helpful for me because I would have been able to relate to them and see that, okay, a trans person can go through a traumatic sexual assault and still live.
Annie: In the end, Bobby won his case and his assaulter was served justice, while Julie’s case fizzled out and Title IX never really helped her. This is the reality of the Title IX system. It’s complicated, with plenty of flaws and a wide variety of outcomes, but it’s still an important defense against sexual violence on college campuses. Our last question for both Julie and Bobby was the question we ask every survivor: what was indelible to you about your experience?
Julie: I'm never gonna forget how it's, it's sad, but I'm never going to forget how alone I was. When you're a survivor of sexual assault, you need to feel the humanity of other people and you need to feel, because you think, “How the fuck could someone do this to me? How can someone have this, this cold, evil, dead heart that they would do this to me?” But then you also, it's hard because you know that they're a person and that they feel, and that even if they don't feel bad or think about what they did, especially with my case, he was a friend of mine and I can't forget that. And I like, I like physically, I can't ever forget that he was one of my friends for a really long time. So it's hard with that contrast, and you just feel so lost and you feel like no one is good and the world is just evil, and you need to see that humanity in people. People would ask me like, “Oh, I was friends with him. Would he really do something like that? Would he really?” Believe people! They shouldn't have to be like, “Yeah, it happened.” Believe them.
Bobby: I'd say something that I can't forget is that even though…. the experience of actually going through Title IX was really hard and a lot of emotional labor, I always found people who were willing to support me even outside my family. I think that's such an important piece of college, is finding your chosen family…. I think that reconnecting to my identity was probably the most important piece. Coming back to, you know, seeing my friends, starting to see my friends again, going to classes again, showering regularly, and then starting to process that, okay, this happened. I need to learn something from this experience so I can go forward and live as a better human for going through this. I think that that's probably some of the most important things that I've taken from that situation. And I just like to help other people. I'd like to continue to share my story to help other people feel like they can do it too.
Annie: For survivors of sexual violence, Title IX can feel like just one more confusing thing to add to an already awful situation, but the intention behind it is to help. The more you know about your resources, the more you can be prepared to have conversations about this topic. If you or someone you know goes through a sexual assault, knowing the next steps to take next before it happens can be life-changing.
As we wrap up today’s episode, I’m going to hand you over to our executive producer as always for our end credits. Thanks, Jill.
Jill: Thank you, Annie. What a great episode! And thanks to all of you who are listening to us here at Indelible. I hope you’ll help us build this conversation by sharing our podcast with your friends and networks. We want to get loud.
As always, I invite you to visit us at indelible podcast dot com for information about our class and this podcast, as well as resources for getting involved—or getting help. The decision to go through with a Title IX report can be difficult, but you don’t have to make that decision alone. A great resource for all things Title IX is knowyourix.org--that’s K N O W Y O U R I X dot org. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, help is available at rainn.org—that’s R.A.I.N.N. dot org—or at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website: N.S.V.R.C. dot org. You can call 1.800.656.4673 for free, confidential support 24/7.
Making a podcast is a lot of work and I’m grateful to all of the Indelible students who are so dedicated to this project. To the wonderful human beings known as Julie and Bobby: thank you for lending your stories to this conversation. To our guest expert, Dr. Jennifer Freyd: thank you for your work at the University of Oregon, thank you for your voice today, and thank you for the hard work you continue to do at the Center for Institutional Courage. For more information on Dr. Freyd’s work, visit J.J.F.R.E.Y.D. dot com.
Additional thanks to Hannah, Marissa, and Jonah, our reporters for today’s episode. Thanks as well to our scriptwriters: Kaitlyn, Bekah, and Jonah.
Extreme gratitude to our community partners, The Facing Project and Jana’s Campaign, and to our production consultant, Lantigua Williams & Co.
Indelible is made possible by the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry at Ball State University. Once again, be sure to visit us at indelible podcast dot com and follow us on social media for updates--and to join in the conversation.
Treat yourself with gentleness today.
I’m Jill Christman, and this has been Indelible.