I was the director of a college women’s center for over 10 years. The position was part clinical, part programming for students and the community, and part faculty – research and teaching. Like most college women’s centers, I dealt with countless cases of intimate partner violence, rape and sexual assault. The women’s center, like many such centers within college campuses, gradually became responsible for the development and implementation of violence prevention programs around issues of sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment. Now under the Dear Colleague Letter, most campuses have hired a Title IX prevention specialist, who may or may not be housed within a women’s center. It is important to understand the ramifications of locating prevention within women’s centers or within a prevention specialist. Most women’s centers are significantly underfunded, most receiving no operational funds from colleges (2004). Most women’s centers have limited staff and space to undertake a school wide prevention effort. Similarly, although many now hire a Title IX coordinator, funding for prevention and intervention may be limited. Lastly, many women’s centers are not highly respected on campus either because of their identified mission (i.e. women’s empowerment, activism and feminism) or/and because of the traditional Cartesian split between body and mind: student activities are considered the touchy-feely body, split off as separate, unrelated to the intellectual academic mission of the college. Thus, situating prevention within women’s centers or with a single person can send a message to the campus that this effort is not considered important.
Ideally, under Title IX, schools have a great deal of responsibility to act in the face of accusations, not just proven incidents, of rape, sexual assault or harassment and intimate partner violence. Colleges are supposed to follow the “knew or should have known” standard of intervention (Murphy, personal communication). This makes colleges responsible for violence based on the atmosphere and conditions of the campus. Given the usually private nature of rape, sexual assault and harassment and intimate partner violence, this means schools have a responsibility to act, to do something, even if there is not clear evidence to prosecute. Obviously this does not mean all schools respond. Consider the Columbia University student who carried a mattress to her classes to publically remind the campus that the University had not investigated her allegations of rape. The women claimed the school’s refusal to investigate or/and discipline perpetrators not only reinforced violent behaviors but constituted discrimination that hindered the women student’s participation in their education. Using Title IX in this way also shifted the discourse of college prevention work, focusing on the realities that the atmosphere of a campus can limit women student’s participation in their education. This gender-based violence approach for Title IX is also now being used by LBGTQ students to attempt to address homophobic violence on campuses. Again, ideally the college/university has a responsibility to create an atmosphere where violence is unacceptable but this requires a clear definition of what constitutes violence and threat, tricky tasks within a patriarchal culture. Each campus has to develop adequate support and advocacy for victims, accountability for students and the college at large, and the development and implementation of prevention-based curriculum for all incoming students.