When Swarthmore College, a bastion of progressive and feminist values among elite liberal arts colleges, fails to respond appropriately to charges of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, what hope can we have?

Female president? Check. Liberal values? Check. Focus on social justice? Check. Feminist student body? Check. It would seem that this progressive institution has met all the criteria for being a supportive place for women to learn, right? Except that Swarthmore is subject to the same denial that has historically characterized our collective and individual responses to sexual trauma.

Twenty years ago, when I was a student at Swarthmore (a place that I love, by the way), allegations of sexual assault were mishandled with similar results as today. Women who made accusations of sexual assault felt afraid, traumatized, ostracized, and frequently had to take leaves of absence or withdraw altogether in order to recover from their assaults. Men accused of sexual assault remained on campus, the subjects of gossip but no formal sanction or punishment. It seemed as unjust then as it does today that it is often young women who have been sexually assaulted who leave college, and young men who have allegedly sexually assaulted women who remain on campus. 

Swarthmore is not alone. A 2010 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that students responsible for sexual assault generally face little or no punishment from college and university judicial systems, while victims are traumatized. The investigation found that among 130 colleges and universities receiving federal funds to combat sexual violence from 2003-2008, colleges permanently expelled only 10-25 percent of men found “responsible” for sexual assault. 

On April 18, twelve Swarthmore students filed a Clery Act (which requires full public reporting of campus crime) complaint against Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The complaint alleges that the school is underreporting sexual violence on campus and discouraging victims from reporting. Swarthmore students said they are preparing a Title IX action.

Sexual assault survivors at other elite institutions such as Yale, Wesleyan, Amherst, Occidental, and UNC Chapel Hill are making use of the Clery Act and Title IX to bring about changes in their school’s handling of sexual assault as well. As reported in the New York Times last month, these students are learning from one another about how to make use of these federal requirements that have been around since 1990, in the case of the Clery Act, and since 1972, in the case of Title IX.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, signed in 1990, requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to document and disclose information about crime committed on or near campus. Survivors are using Clery Act complaints to force colleges and universities to make public information about sexual assaults on campus, which have historically been handled privately. Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, has been on the books for decades. But it is only since a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter was issued by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that colleges across the country have overhauled their sexual misconduct policies and procedures, and that survivors have begun a flurry of Title IX complaints against colleges and universities. The letter explained that the requirements of Title IX pertaining to sexual harassment also cover sexual violence, and laid out the specific Title IX requirements applicable to sexual violence.

Because I love Swarthmore, I am both dismayed by the school’s systematic mishandling of sexual assault cases and determined that it, and we, can do better. Part of doing better involves a retreat from our cultural denial of sexual trauma.

A reviewer of my book, Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, pointed out that the proportion of women I spoke with who had experienced sexual violence, 1 in 4, seemed high, and disproportionate. She argued that perhaps this over-representation of women who had experienced sexual trauma explained some of the difficulties my respondents had with sexual agency. In point of fact, nationwide estimates of sexual violence among women range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 4. This denial from a feminist academic reviewer.

How do we account for this denial? One of the best accounts we have of our cultural response to sexual trauma remains Judith Herman’s classic Trauma and Recovery, originally published in 1992. Herman cites the myriad ways in which, throughout history, we have denied, ignored, and not allowed ourselves to know about the degree to which sexual trauma is commonplace, not unusual. She argues that to acknowledge the existence of widespread sexual trauma is to acknowledge our own vulnerability, and to recognize the depths of sexual oppression. Rather than remembering the truth of sexual trauma’s widespread nature, Herman writes that we as a culture move in and out of periods of recognition and of amnesia. Remembering and forgetting over and over again.

Freud made the startling discovery, in the late 1800’s, that many of his female patients with hysteria had suffered childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual exploitation. But soon thereafter, after public humiliation and ostracism, he argued that his patients’ symptoms were the result of forbidden longings for sexual abuse, not of sexual abuse itself. It’s a short journey from Freud’s repudiation of the traumatic theory of hysteria to college and university administrations’ denial and mishandling of sexual assault on campus.

A network of survivors of sexual assault on college campuses is now playing an active role in spreading knowledge, resources, and awareness of how to use the Clery Act and Title IX to make colleges more responsive to allegations of sexual assault. Perhaps they represent the latest iteration of recognition of sexual assault, to be shortly followed by denial. Or perhaps they represent the start of the political movement for sexual equality that Herman argues is necessary to stop the amnesia.

If you like this post, check out my book, Hard to Get, follow me onTwitter, or like me on Facebook.

About the Author

Leslie C. Bell, Ph.D., LCSW
Leslie C. Bell, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and sociologist who specializes in women's development and sexuality.

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