On March 31, 2011, the Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation of Yale University for possible violation of Title IX. Sixteen Yale students submitted the complaint two weeks before, arguing that Yale is a sexually hostile environment, which prevents women from participating in campus life as fully as men. If the university is found to violate Title IX, and fails to come into compliance, its federal funding will be revoked. Last year, Yale's federal funding was $510.4 million.
Under Title IX, no educational institution that receives federal money can discriminate on the basis of sex. This discrimination can take many forms, from unequal pay and athletic funding to sexual harassment.
I was able to read a draft of the current complaint against Yale, because I was asked to sign it, and declined. Three years ago, as a director of Yale's Women's Center, I was involved in a very public (and not very popular) response to one sexist incident on campus. I didn't want to go through it again. But I thought I could do use this opportunity to explain what the complaint says, and why I think the students have a case.
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The Last Seven Years
Most of the Title IX Complaint documents a series of high-profile events that have taken place at Yale over the last seven years. In reverse chronological order:
Last October, 45 members and pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, of which George W. Bush was once president, marched through Old Campus, where most Yale freshmen live. The 15 pledges chanted "No means yes, and yes means anal!" and "My name is Jack, I'm a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen!" The 30 older men shouted "Louder!"
No disciplinary action was taken.
In September 2009, an email ranking 53 freshmen women according to "how many beers it would take to have sex with them" circulated among fraternities and athletic teams, before going viral. The "Preseason Scouting Report" classified the women, who had arrived on campus only a few days before, under the headings "sobriety," "five beers," "ten beers" and "blackout," along with an overall grade of "HIT" or "miss," and some extra colorful commentary.
One of the students responsible, it seems, was quietly reprimanded by Yale's Executive Committee (the university's formal disciplinary body, better known as Excomm). But we can't be sure, because Excomm is strictly confidential.
In January 2008, over a dozen pledges for the Zeta Psi fraternity gathered in front of the Yale Women's Center shortly after midnight and shouted "Dick, dick, dick!" One Women's Center student employee was approaching the center at the time, but intimidated by the scene, she retreated and entered through a back door. The men then took a photo of themselves holding the sign "We Love Yale Sluts," uploaded the picture to Facebook and tagged themselves.
The Women's Center employee filed a complaint to Yale's Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which was in fact created after another Title IX Complaint against Yale three decades ago. The case was then brought to the Excomm on the lesser charges of intimidation and harassment. The men were found not guilty, and the student wasn't allowed to appeal.
In May 2007, a group of over 150 medical students signed and submitted a letter requesting a review of the school's sexual harassment and assault policies. The Working Group that resulted found that students were unaware of the resources available to them, and also believed that if they were assaulted, their case might be dismissed, held against them, or their confidentiality breached.
According to the Title IX Complaint, no changes were made to Yale's sexual harassment and assault procedures.
In 2006, fraternity brothers surrounded the Yale Women's Center and shouted that favorite, familiar refrain: "No means yes, and yes means anal!"
No disciplinary action was taken.
Every year, the Yale Women's Center participates in Take Back the Night (TBTN), a nationwide rally against sexual violence. In the evening's solemn and stirring climax, students stand in a circle and share their experiences of sexual assault, often for the first time. As part of the event, rape survivors also decorate t-shirts and display them publicly on campus. The man who raped me is still at Yale; I hurt, but I am not silenced. They are a reminder to the Yale community that sexual violence happens, and happens here, and that its victims have a voice. In 2004, women were heckled by passerbys as they told their stories to the crowd. The next day, four t-shirts disappeared. In 2005, almost half of the 48 shirts were stolen.
No disciplinary action was taken.
Is It Sexual Harassment?
According to the Office of Civil Rights, a "hostile environment" exists when "there is a pattern or practice of harassment, or if the harassment is sustained and non-trivial," particularly "if the conduct has gone on for some time, or takes place throughout the school, or if the taunts are made by a number of students." The Title IX Complaint against Yale argues, in 27-pages passionate pages, that Yale is a hostile environment for women in exactly these terms.
Under Yale's regulations, conduct qualifies as sexual harassment that "has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work or academic performance or creating an intimidating or hostile academic or work environment."
Determining sexual harassment is murky business. But when a freshman woman, returning to her dorm, must pass by a group of fraternity pledges mocking, in unison, the very idea of female consent -- it seems, to me, like her academic environment is hostile. "Feeling preyed upon by the members of my community," one wrote one student in a petition, "makes me wonder if there is really anyone who takes my feelings seriously and thinks of me as a human being and not a piece of meat."
When a freshman woman, in her first week at college, has her photo, name, hometown address, residence hall, and an analysis of her sexual attractiveness distributed to hundreds of her new classmates -- it seems, to me, like her academic environment is hostile. "I have felt less secure around campus," wrote one "scouted" freshman in the YDN.
When a student is too scared to enter the Women's Center, a declared safe space for women on campus, because a mob of drunk men are chanting "No means yes, yes means anal!" outside its front door -- I'd say her academic environment is hostile. "I felt in danger," she wrote in the YDN, "as if approaching them would undoubtedly result in verbal, if not physical, harassment."
When a rape survivor, who lets her story hang in the open air of Yale campus, finds her hand-designed t-shirt stolen the next day -- her academic environment sounds hostile to me. "A culture of denying rape," wrote one of the TBTN organizers in the YDN, "is a culture of rape acceptance."
On the next page, Yale's Response.
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