Ahn: Why we filed the Title IX complaint

On March 2 of this year, over three years after the fact, Dean Mary Miller published a “Task Force” report, the administration’s response to the 2008 Zeta Psi “We Love Yale Sluts” incident. The report’s opening statement contained no reference to the event that had inspired it, instead musing generally that “[s]exual violence and harassment on our campus reveal patterns of thought and behavior that extend far beyond Yale” and proposing “discussion and reflection” as the key to resolving issues of sexual safety.

On March 15, 16 students and recent alumnae of Yale filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights; I was one of them. The signatories were a diverse group, representing men and women, current students and recent graduates, those who have been involved in campus feminism and those who have not. The complaint itself was a detailed and heavily sourced 26-page document that outlined incidents of sex-based harassment and intimidation that have occurred at Yale every year for the past seven years, and argued that these incidents — and the University’s inadequate response to them — have resulted in a hostile educational environment for women at Yale.

Yesterday, after reviewing our complaint, the Office of Civil Rights informed the University that it would be opening an investigation into Yale’s policies on sexual harassment and assault. Under Title IX of United States law, universities that receive federal funding may not discriminate on the basis of sex. Such discrimination can manifest itself in different ways, ranging from unequal resources for women’s athletics to consistent tolerance of sexual harassment.

For the past seven years, Yale has demonstrated just such tolerance towards harassment of women: in 2004, when fraternity members stole (and photographed themselves wearing) four t-shirts from the annual Take Back the Night Clothesline Project, in which past victims of rape record their testimonies on t-shirts and display them; in 2005, when a new class of fraternity pledges stole 20 more of the t-shirts; in 2006, when yet another class of pledges gathered by the Yale Women’s Center and chanted, “No means yes! Yes means anal!”; in 2007, when over 150 Medical School students wrote a letter of protest about the conditions of sexual harassment on campus in which eight specific instances of sexual assault were cited; in 2008, when Zeta Psi pledges posed in front of the Yale Women’s Center with a poster reading, “We Love Yale Sluts,” photographed themselves in the pose, and disseminated the photo on Facebook; in 2009, when anonymous male students at Yale authored and circulated a “Preseason Scouting Report” e-mail that rated incoming freshman women according to how many beers it would take to have sex with them, and listing their names, hometowns and residential colleges; and this past October, when DKE pledges congregated on Old Campus chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I f— dead women and fill them with my semen.”

So what do we mean when we say that Yale is a hostile environment for women? What we don’t mean is that every female student at Yale has experienced sexual harassment or assault. What we mean is that the University has consistently demonstrated an attitude of tolerance for highly public acts of misogyny and sexual aggression. Female undergraduates see their peers call them “Yale sluts” and hear still other peers chant that “no means yes.” They live with the knowledge that the University has failed to punish those peers for sexual harassment. It takes little imagination to understand the effect of this kind of atmosphere on female students’ ability to engage in campus life on a basis of safety and equality.

Representatives of the University may point to the fact that it has regulations in place that address sexual harassment and assault. But our complaint does not question whether those regulations exist in theory; the question is whether they function as adequate preventative measures against harassment and assault. Take, for example, the belated Task Force report of which the administration seems so proud. Here are two sentences from that report that inadvertently illuminate Yale’s problematic stance on sexual assault: “Given the unwillingness of the majority of victims to bring charges against their perceived assailants, we must presume that the majority of perpetrators will remain on campus without disciplinary action. Therefore, it is important to develop other means to intervene.” In other words, the University “presume[s]” that its own disciplinary procedures will fail to protect most victims of sexual assault. It’s a devastating premise, and one that reveals the flawed and defeatist nature of the University’s existing policies. Yale has had years to make systemic change on this front, and hasn’t. Hopefully the Office for Civil Rights investigation will provide some guidance.

Presca Ahn is a 2010 graduate of Branford College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    It’s about time.

    Holden Caulfield* (the first liberated male in American literature —1945) would be proud.

    *
    *If Happy Loman will stoop to any level in Death of A Salesman, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is unmasked as someone who has a definite code of behavior with girls in dating situations. A 16-year-old Pencey Prep student, Holden is furious that his roommate, Ward Stradlater, may have put on his “Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice” (Salinger, p.49) to con Holden’s friend, Jane Gallagher, into having sexual relations with him. When Holden describes himself as never having gone that far, he says, “The trouble with me is, [when a girl says ‘stop’] I stop.” (p.92) Here, the author, J.D. Salinger, has Holden unmask himself as someone who is not willing to play the macho game of using a girl on a date just to prove his masculinity, whether out of ethics or out of fear. Later, admittedly, Holden has different thoughts about a prostitute than about a date.*

  • tedmosby

    But… I don’t understand! We formed committees! We held *dialogues!*

  • wtf

    Don’t forget, Women’s Center, that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

    This is ridiculous.

  • penny_lane

    Presca, this is fantastically written and reasoned. I remember how infuriating it was to be a woman on campus, and see instances of racism, homophobia and antisemitism be (rightly!) strongly condemned, but see repeated acts of sexism and misogyny met with lukewarm, equivocal, ass-covering responses. At the very least, the university owes its women stronger words of condemnation of the sorts of actions you have enumerated.

  • lprol

    I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of support for this piece. This was articulately written and hits all the right points.

    Oh, and I’m a male undergrad at Yale.

  • jnewsham

    Seconding lprol.

  • YaleLib

    Thank you for writing this! I was profoundly disappointed to see the comments asking if this was an April Fool’s joke on the YDN’s news piece about this investigation. Unfortunately, even after all these very public acts of misogyny, we still do not live in a time where everyone on campus takes issues of sexual harassment seriously.

  • thanks

    Presca, THANK YOU for writing this cogent, articulate editorial. As a recent (male) alum, it’s unbelievable to me that the climate and chilling effect of misogyny and gender-based inequality are still so rampant on campus. The administration’s tepid response has only reinforced this kind of thinking and behavior– it’s extremely easy to normalize when there is no punishment. Thanks for finally doing what sadly needed to be done…

  • Tully

    “Here are two sentences from that report that inadvertently illuminate Yale’s problematic stance on sexual assault: “Given the unwillingness of the majority of victims to bring charges against their perceived assailants, we must presume that the majority of perpetrators will remain on campus without disciplinary action. Therefore, it is important to develop other means to intervene.” In other words, the University “presume[s]” that its own disciplinary procedures will fail to protect most victims of sexual assault. It’s a devastating premise, and one that reveals the flawed and defeatist nature of the University’s existing policies.”

    Can someone explain how the conclusion follows? Yale says it will develop new methods to decrease sexual assault in response to the apparent fact that there are few accusers in such cases. Wouldn’t another “devastating” conclusion be that women’s groups have been ineffectual in encouraging victims of sexual assault to turn in their assailants?

  • River Tam

    Maybe the problem is that we are presuming that most sexual assaults go unreported. Why in the world would we presume that the absence of evidence of sexual assault is a symptom of underreporting rather than the absence of sexual assault?

    It’s as if we do not see any footprints in the snow and thus we assume we are being stalked by birds.

  • Matthew Mitcheltree

    I am positively thrilled to see this kind of unwavering commitment on the part of Yale’s most respectable bunch. This cause has my fullest support.

  • prescaahn

    Hi again, Tully,

    It seems to me that the hostile environment discourages many of the assaulted from turning to Yale for help. If the University responds half-heartedly in even public cases like the DKE and Zeta Psi incidents, it’s hard to trust that it will act differently in private cases.

    Presca

  • kit

    Though many of the harsh comments on the YDN do not reflect this, I know many other freshman girls that are behind this cause 100%.

  • dfsdfs

    Hi RiverTam,

    I can attest that I have been a victim of sexual assault here, and while I did report it to the Dean, I decided that I would not take it any further (the act did not go on his record). Even though I wish it didn’t, these events do exist.

  • HighStreet2010

    Yes – but what would you have them do? A anonymous person leaks a document online judging women – should Yale be hiring private eyes to track down the source? DKE signs a song and they get their charter removed for a period of time, has to suspend pledging, and the University announces new policies for undergrad organizations. Zeta takes a picture and it’s even more of an uproar.

    I completely agree with you about cases of sexual assault, and think that the University is incentivized to keep those under wraps and thus has a conflict of interest in helping victims. Outside inspection is necessary in those cases to make sure things are being dealt with appropriately.

    But let’s call a spade a spade here – you are disappointed that there were not any more consequences for groups (meaning specifically athletes and fraternities, or, really, athletic fraternities) that made offensive speech towards women. And now you’re seeking to force the University through the federal government to punish those groups more harshly. I honestly don’t know what you think appropriate punishment is for posing with an offensive photograph, or signing an offensive song. Is being skewered on national news not enough? Is losing your national charter and being reprimanded by the University not enough? What is the proper penance?

  • Branford73

    HighStreet,
    Ordinarily I wouldn’t be a spelling policeman but this is the third post where you’ve referred to “signing” an offensive song instead of “singing”. Just think, if the guys had only signed the song only women fluent in ASL would have been offended.

  • tedmosby

    @Presca:

    I believe that in some cases, the opposite might be true. Sometimes victims use logic like “I don’t want his life to be over, I just want him to leave me alone.” They fear the thought of feeling morally responsible for a harsh punishment. I know this sort of sentiment exists from first-hand experience. It is oversimplification to say that all (or even most) underreporting comes from Yale not doing enough.

  • penny_lane

    “They fear the thought of feeling morally responsible for a harsh punishment.”

    If women (or men) feel guilty for the consequences their assailant/harasser will face should they report the event, then it certainly *does* come from Yale not doing enough. Could you imagine the victim of any other crime feeling guilty for reporting the perpetrator? If we have a culture where it seems normal or logical for the victim of sexual assault or harassment to feel guilty when the person responsible faces due consequences, then we have a very, very serious problem on our hands. I ultimately agree with Presca, that by failing to condemn the actions of Zeta Psi, the authors of the Scouting Report, et al., the university is perpetuating the minimization of actions (rape, harassment) that are truly egregious and the exculpation of their perpetrators.

  • The Anti-Yale

    This ain’t inconsequential.

    A colleague of mine’s daughter (with impeccable middle class credentials) at a Massachusetts college party, woke up the next morning not knowing what had happened. Nine months later she was the mother of a child, the identity of whose father is a total mystery to her.

    No does not mean yes.

  • Branford73

    Paul, you seem to be full of non-sequitors on this whole topic. Your anecdote was related to you by your colleague presumably, not by her, so we nor you can know what he may have held back from you or she from him. Not knowing what happened says nothing about what happened. Perhaps she was drugged, perhaps she was raped, perhaps she consented to sex before, during or after voluntarily drinking too much alcohol. What would you have that college do? What did it do? Was law enforcement engaged to investigate? Did your colleague engage private investigators to learn who was at the party, tracing her activities and acquaintances in a effort to discover the father?

    Of course no does not mean yes. It was offensive for those jerks to say so. Unarguably they knew it was offensive and that likely was the point, to offend. No one in a state college has the right not to be offended. Of course, Yale as a private school could enact its own speech code and thereby make it’s students’ ears and delicate sensibilities safer. And that would ensure that its students have less free speech than at UConn.

    I’m offended you keep invoking the memory of a 55 year old recluse who seduced a 19 year old Yale freshman woman nearly 40 years ago into leaving school and never returning. But I don’t call for your banishment.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Branford 73:

    She was drugged. My colleague forgave. The child lives in their loving family. No one can EVER know what goes on in the human heart.

    I cite the example because I know of no MALE who has been, against his will, “taken” by a female’s lust and left to decide whether he would raise or abort the unsought offspring of that lust.

    ___________________________

    As for Joyce Manynard and J.D. Salinger. I have read all the books. I have even listened to Ms. Maynard’s tape-recorded memoire, with the anger building in her voice. Wikipedia (below) has it right:
    Salinger did NOT seduce Ms. Maynard. SHE was seduced by his fame, a common phenomenon in our materialistic, hedonistic society. http://caulfieldpioneer.blogspot.com

    PK
    (from Wikipedia)

    She (Joyce Maynard) entered Yale University in 1971 and sent a collection of her writings to the editors of The New York Times Magazine. They asked her to write an article for them, which was published as “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life” in the magazine’s April 23, 1972 issue. The article prompted a letter from J. D. Salinger, then 53 years old, who complimented her writing and warned her of the dangers of publicity.
    [edit]Relationship with Salinger
    They exchanged 25 letters, and Maynard dropped out of Yale the summer after her freshman year to live with Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire.[1] Maynard spent ten months living in Salinger’s Cornish home, during which time she completed work on her first book, Looking Back, a memoir that was published in 1973. Her relationship with Salinger ended abruptly just prior to the book’s publication; according to Salinger’s daughter Margaret, he ended things because Maynard wanted children but Salinger felt he was too old.[2] According to Maynard’s memoir, he cut off the relationship suddenly while on a family vacation with her and with his two children; she was stunned and begged him to take her back. According to Maynard, she had dropped out of Yale to be with him, forgoing a scholarship. She never finished college.
    During the 1980s, Joyce Maynard bought a house with some of her book advance and lived alone in the town of Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Two years later, she married and had three children. While living in Hillsborough, she wrote a novel about people who live in small towns.

  • zhezhune

    I spent a year at the University of Florida before starting Yale – UF has 26 (!) fraternities, and yet their administration is not in the pathetic mess that Yale is in.

    What is it about the Yale aura/funding/history/je-ne-sais-qua that cultivates such an invertebrate administration, one so coddling of bad behavior, one always-already apologetic and nothing more?
    BR’10

  • DT_MC10

    @ HighStreet2010 – Just because the fraternity has some athletes in it doesn’t mean it is reflective of the athlete community at Yale. That’d be tantamount to saying just because some Berkeley kids are in DKE it means that it’s a Berkeley fraternity… I’m not contesting that it does draw from men’s teams, or even how heavily it does, just that I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to lump the two together.
    //
    And I agree that Yale needs to take a hardline. It’s surprising for how highly I think Yale guards its reputation.