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.