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(Content Warning For Sexual Assault)
This article is in response to the Middlebury Campus article, Reexamining Our Sexual Assault Investigation Process, which appeared in the paper (thank you editors) on March 9, 2016. I’ll include a link to the article here, but want to offer a brief recap for first-time readers, to provide readers the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to read the article. The Campus article was written by a Middlebury College student who was a respondent (meaning they were accused of violating the college’s sexual misconduct policy) in an administrative judicial process. The author was ultimately found “not responsible,” and decided to write this article about how difficult their experience was and why the Middlebury sexual assault investigation process is a failure.
I am writing this article because:
1. The Campus article strongly reinforces an orientation of disbelief of individuals who tell their stories of sexual harm. This article acts as a validation of the thought that lingers in the back of our collective consciousness whenever sexual harm is discussed: that the person who has experienced that harm might be lying. This orientation of disbelief is deeply harmful.
2. The Campus article opens space for and encourages individuals who have experienced sexual harm to doubt their own experiences. One of the great traumas of sexual harm can be being told, by close allies, friends, family, the perpetrator, or society at large, that you have invented, twisted, or manipulated your experience. We tend to focus on the so-called “facts” of an incident, rather than assuming a practice of recognizing that experience is subjective and listening openly to narratives.
3. The Campus article reinforces the narrative that by reporting, or even speaking sexual harm, you could ruin the life of the person who committed that harm. This article discourages individuals from speaking their experiences, for the sake of the person who committed harm against them. Not only is this model oriented toward the needs of the perpetrator, it also emboldens a culture of secrecy around sexual harm, in which the experience becomes the burden of the survivor alone.
4. Finally, I am writing this response because the Campus article questions the college’s processes for adjudicating sexual assault, processes which actually do need to be questioned. The Campus author asks some of the right questions, but draws all of the wrong conclusions. In this article, I will discuss the Middlebury sexual investigation process, the ways in which it does fail us, and what some alternatives might be.
The Middlebury sexual assault investigation process fails us in our efforts to combat a culture of sexual harm because it confines sexual harm to specific incidents and specific bodies, and because it relies on an evidence-based authoritarian justice system. This is not to say that the college judicial process is not useful, helpful, or needed. Currently an administrative judicial process is the only option, other than pressing criminal charges, for students who have experienced sexual harm to force the perpetrator out of the college. While I believe that no administrative judicial process can fully meet our community needs around sexual harm, the Middlebury College judicial process is particularly problematic. While the Campus author outlines this process in their article, I urge readers to read the Policy Against Sexual Misconduct for themselves, as there are significant omissions and misrepresentations in the article. Below I have illuminated two of the major issues with this policy.
1. No Contact Order (NCO): The Campus author misrepresents the NCO by claiming that the measure limits only the movements of the respondent. This is not universally true. The conditions of an NCO are negotiated by the administration and students involved, and depend very heavily on the circumstances of the events, on whether or not the NCO is being issued as part of an official judicial process, and on the investigation itself. Often, a dean will issue an NCO that limits the movements of both complainant (the individual who files a complaint with the administration) and respondent. For example, the complainant might not be able to enter the respondent’s dorm, or each party member will be assigned one dining hall. The ultimate failure of the NCO is that it can limit the spaces and movements of the person who has experienced harm, and does not necessarily allow them to move freely on campus.
2. Single Investigator Model: My greatest issue with Middlebury’s sexual assault investigation process is that it employs the Single Investigator Model. This model was recommended by the US Department of Education, and adopted by the college as an attempt to decrease the psychological trauma of an investigation on those involved. Rather than conducting a trial, a single, independent, college-employed investigator conducts interviews and compiles all of the evidence. After compiling the evidence, the investigator makes a recommendation to the college Human Relations Officer (HRO) assigned to the case. The HRO is then solely responsible for determining whether or not there was a violation of the sexual misconduct policy. The HRO takes the investigator’s recommendation into account, but will not necessarily come to the same conclusion as the investigator. Ultimately, a single person alone decides whether or not the respondent has committed sexual harm. This is not a collective or even democratic process; the power of adjudication is consolidated in a single administrator.
This last point is indicative of the greater issue presented by college and university adjudication of sexual harm: administrative adjudication perpetuates a model in which sexual harm is the burden and responsibility of the individuals involved. Sexual harm is a community issue: it is born from a rampant culture of sexual violence. If someone is harmed in a community, it is the community’s responsibility to respond, with compassion and support for the person who was harmed. The fact that individuals who have experienced sexual harm feel that they need (barring issues of safety) to keep their experiences to themselves, especially because they might hurt the perpetrator by telling somebody, is a marker of the systemic oppression of marginalized bodies from which rape culture is born.
What if we treated sexual harm the way we treat other forms of interpersonal violence? If a student were punched in the face would we tell them not to speak about their experience publically? Would they feel that they had to keep the name of their attacker a secret, so as not to interfere with their attacker’s social life? I use the metaphor of punching here not to equate two very different acts of violence, but rather to make the point that we do not respond to sexual harm with the same level of clarity with which we respond to other forms of physical violence.
So, how might we make sexual harm a community issue? How can students organize to respond directly to incidents of sexual harm? I have spent the past six months organizing with a group of Bryn Mawr College community members to form a collective called Students Against Sexual Harm (SASH). SASH is a student-led collective that operates outside of the administration to provide support for students who have experienced sexual harm in any shape or form. Here are some of the things we do:
1. We are focused on the needs of the person whom we are supporting. We take their lead and try to provide the type of support they want. If, for example, they just want to meet with their support team once a week to talk, eat candy, or watch a movie, etc. we would do that. If they want help with safety planning and support networking, we would do that. If they want us to have a conversation with the person who has caused them harm, or to ask them to leave certain spaces, we would do that.
2. We are not mandated reporters. We operate completely outside of the administrative judicial processes. The only exception is if a person we are working with wants to pursue a judicial process, in which case we would support them to do so.
3. We meet as a collective every week to check in, discuss any questions we have about the various support situations, and to strategize with and support one another.
I describe SASH’s model as one, and certainly not the only, example of how community support networks can be built on a college campus. What is so inspiring for me about this work is the knowledge that we, as students and as community members, can take action against oppressive violence in our colleges and communities; that we can both utilize the college judicial processes to our advantage, and create alternatives for ourselves when these processes prove violent, oppressive, or are simply not meeting our needs. My hope is that this article might create spaces for collective action where those spaces are lacking, that it might broaden or enliven those spaces where they do exist, and that those of us who felt diminished by the recent Middlebury Campus article might respond, in anger, and together.
Below is a list of resources for readers who are interested in organizing against sexual harm in their own colleges or communities. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about our model, or if you would like to share any relevant models, strategies, or structures you have found helpful in your own organizing.