If Everything is Harassment, Everything Is

Betsy DeVos, the United States Secretary of Education, recently announced that the Title IX guidelines – specifically those pertaining to Joe Biden’s “Dear Colleague” Letter – will be repealed. Not only is the retraction of these standards a horrible idea, but the reasoning behind the cancellation is aggravating and disheartening.

The Title IX guidelines were created to decrease the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, as well as give schools strong incentive to handle cases of sexual assault more seriously than they had in the past. If schools failed to meet the procedures set in place by the letter or attempted to cover up a sexual assault case, they risked losing their federal funding. These strategies have begun changing not only the way school administration looks at sexual abuse cases, but also how students and the general public react when an incident occurs.

During her announcement on Wednesday, DeVos discussed how sexual assault is appalling and should never occur. However, she also continuously placed sexual assault survivors and those accused of sexual assault on equal ground, advocating for the fairness in investigating sexual assault claims on both sides. I am all for fair trials, but her assertion sounds a lot less like the “innocent until proven guilty” motto most of us are familiar with, and more like another burden being placed on the survivors of these incidents.

Nearly every college student knows what the statistic “1 in 5” refers to – the ratio of females attending higher education who experience some sort of sexual assault during their time on campus. However, less know that only 20 percent of sexual assaults are even reported to the police. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only 2-10 percent of allegations are false, making DeVos’ air time spent advocating for those falsely accused incredibly disproportionate to the realities of those occurrences.

Finally, DeVos stated “But if everything is harassment, nothing is” when claiming that any little matter can become a “full-blown Title IX investigation.” This resulted in what she viewed as a waste of resources. However, that should be exactly what happens. Any instance where a person is harrassed by another should be investigated and treated seriously. The mindset that DeVos portrays in her argument – that only “big” issues matter – is extremely disturbing. The seemingly small incidents, such as sexualizing a person’s body or tasteless drawings and name calling, are not only are wrong in themselves, but can also lead to more direct inappropriate behavior, like sexual assault. For DeVos to stand in front of America and implicitly tell us that it is only acceptable to draw a boundary line after an actual assault has happened is the exact mindset that must change in order for the stunning statistics on sexual assault to finally decrease.

Whatever faults or issues the Title IX program has now are minor compared to the unspoken plan our Secretary of Education will eventually propose after these repeals. We should advocate for fairness and justice in all cases of sexual assault and conduct them in an unbiased manner, but we also need to remember these incidents occur to actual people. We should treat them as such.