On September 22, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos dealt a major blow to the sexual assault movement: She rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance regarding campus sexual assault and issued new guidelines that activists believe make clear that the Department of Education doesn’t take survivors’ rights as seriously as it takes their rapists’.
The activists who have been leading the campus sexual assault movement for years hardly accepted this development. Several organizations, including End Rape on Campus, PAVE, Feminist Majority Foundation, It’s On Us, SurvJustice, and the Women’s March, organized a national vigil to create a space for survivors to support each other and continue their fight for justice.
End Rape On Campus’ Sofie Karasek told MTV News about her experience at the vigil, her response to #MeToo, and how students can continue to push their schools to support survivors despite DeVos’ actions.
This piece has been edited and condensed.
In 2013, an unprecedented number of student sexual assault survivors started filing federal complaints against their universities to the Department of Education under Title IX, and created a national movement. I personally got involved after I was sexually assaulted at UC Berkeley and after Berkeley’s deliberate indifference about that fact. I co-founded End Rape On Campus (EROC) that year with other survivors of campus sexual assault whose institutions had fundamentally betrayed their trust.
This movement got an enormous amount of media attention and the Obama administration eventually created a White House task force to address this issue. Vice President Biden created the It's on Us campaign to further raise awareness and also to call on members of our communities to take action against sexual violence — on college campuses in particular, but also more broadly.
Then, about a year ago, the Access Hollywood tape [of Trump’s claims of sexual assault] came out. It became clear that one of the major contenders for the presidency of the United States had admitted to sexual assault. When Trump became President, it wasn't clear whether the progress we had made in the previous administration would be maintained. In fact, it would go on to tip the scales in favor of perpetrators and against survivors.
On September 22, the Department of Education announced it was rescinding [the Obama-era guidance], even though two days prior, 100,000 comments were submitted to the department supporting the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter [which supports survivors]. It was a really, really tough day. It was so difficult to feel like an agency that's supposed to ensure that everybody's able to get an education, that all kids are safe in school and able to pursue their dreams, is just completely disregarding and violating that mission.
We decided to respond by organizing a vigil because we fundamentally felt like Betsy DeVos was not actually listening to the people who are most impacted by sexual violence; she was not listening to the voices of survivors and parents of survivors, who we refer to as secondary survivors. We wanted to make sure that all survivors who wanted to were able to speak out at the vigil.
On October 19, we organized a vigil at the Department of Education. We had previously protested there in 2013 to ask the Department of Education to enforce its own laws and stop letting colleges sweep rape under the rug, so it felt pretty heavy to do that again, although in a totally different context. If you had told me four years ago that I’d be back on that plaza to protest the same department that is supposed to ensure our civil rights, with a president that has admitted to sexual assault, I would have definitely been surprised. In 2013, I felt like the administration needed to hear survivor's voices to understand. Now it feels like no matter what we say, the administration won't care.
As more people got to the vigil, however, I started to feel hopeful. We gathered and had everybody repeat the words, "We believe you," and, "I believe you. It is not your fault. You are not alone." I can only imagine how much hearing that from a crowd of people, from a movement of people who had my back, would have meant to me when I was sexually assaulted as a freshman. We lit candles in memory of those we have lost to sexual assault and gender-based violence. We wanted to talk about the consequences of sexual assault, how it can literally be life or death, and to honor those people, too.
It was really important for us to be in solidarity with one another. Especially when we lit those candles, there was really a sense of connection. Somebody said that having this space where they felt empowered to do something and feel connected to other folks was the most impactful thing that they'd been to since the Women's March earlier this year.
“Somebody said that having this space where they felt empowered to do something and feel connected to other folks was the most impactful thing that they'd been to since the Women's March earlier this year.”
This vigil was especially meaningful because it coincided with the #MeToo campaign. Especially in the aftermath of that, we felt it was important to create a space for survivors and our allies to come together. A lot of people have responded to #MeToo by asking why survivors are always the ones who have to come forward and bear our traumas in order for people to see us as human. When #MeToo surfaced, I was honestly pretty livid that we had to do this again.
But at the same time, so many of us came to the vigil to say "#MeToo" to the Department of Education. #MeToo has shown how widespread and pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault are, not just on college campuses, the military, the Catholic Church or any other organization, but throughout our entire culture. Hopefully this will be a moment that brings together people who have experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence from across different spheres and prove this a national problem.
It’s also a crucial time to point out that people accused of sexual assault don't just leave college and then disappear into the ether. They can become powerful people who run companies, like Harvey Weinstein. People will commit sexual assault in high school and then go off to college and do it there, too. We have to deal with this much earlier.
Going forward, we need people on college campuses to get their institutions to publicly commit to supporting survivors in their own policies. Ask yourself what the best way to get the attention of your university’s president is. Do you write an Op-Ed in the student newspaper? Do you create a site where people can submit their stories? Do you have people record videos explaining why this is so important and share them on social media? Do you have a press conference calling on the president of the university to uphold this guidance? Our partner, Know Your IX, actually has a campus organizing toolkit that offers a step-by-step how-to for people who are just starting to get involved in this space.
That being said, everybody's activism looks different. I wanted to speak out, but doing so is no more or less valid a response than survivors who decides that their activism is taking care of themselves in whatever way is best for them.
At the end of the day, I feel as though this issue is pretty simple. Don't rape people. Don't sexually harass people. If you're not sure whether something is okay, don't coerce them into doing it. Ask them if it’s ok. Listen to the answer. Respect the answer. It's not that hard. It really isn't. All we're asking for is respect and dignity and to be treated like human beings.