US Department of Education building

Campus safety committee fails to recognize violence as violence

US Department of Education buildingLast week, a 15-member committee of representatives from various groups related to campus sexual violence reached a consensus on a new set of rules that will take effect under the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE Act). These rules are the new mandates that colleges will have to follow under the Clery Act as part of the Violence Against Women Act that was reauthorized after much unnecessary delay last year. The Clery Act requires schools to record and distribute statistics about violent crimes that happen on and near their campuses. Under the new approved set of rules, colleges will have to report and include in their annual crime statistics instances of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

One of the most significant parts of the committee’s work was to define additional types of incidents that colleges will have to start reporting in 2015.  Unfortunately, a proposal to include emotional or psychological abuse alongside sexual and physical abuse in the definition of dating violence failed. Sexual assault activist and Johns Hopkins public health studentKelley Neil was present during this week’s meeting and witnessed the committee’s debate about emotional or psychological abuse’s inclusion. She told me that she was troubled by one of the arguments provided by the heads of the committee: emotional and psychological abuse “isn’t violent enough” to be explicitly listed as a part of dating violence’s definition. Neil said she nearly brought to tears when she heard that argument and had to leave the room to collect herself. “It minimizes the harm that survivors of emotional abuse endure,” she said. A large reason why Congress moved to expand the Clery Act’s reach is because the current provisions under the law have failed to give a comprehensive picture of  campus violence — but these updated rules don’t go far enough. How do we know if schools are doing their part to promote a just, safe community if we are not counting all types of abuse? Students, parents, and prospective students have the right to know whether rates of abuse at a school are climbing or not.

Inside Higher Ed reports that officials from the Department of Education said they didn’t “want to develop such an expansive definition.” My response is: Why not? If another part of the administration – the Department of Justice, to be exact – is willing to acknowledge emotional abuse as a part of domestic violence, why not the Department of Education? There is a reason why abusers often engage in emotional abuse; studies have shown that it is tactic used to exert control by diminishing the victim’s psychological well-being and keep them in the relationship. If a student is subjected to psychological abuse, it is hard to believe that his or her academic career would not be negatively affected by that. Their pain should be counted.

The Education Department’s narrow vision of harm is indicative of a trend that feminists have long struggled to resist: a collective willingness to frame some violent acts as “real” violence and thus not worthy of the same level of concern or action of other forms. Too often this tendency rears its ugly head even within the anti-violence community. Last month, Galya Benarieh Ruffer wrote in the Daily Beast about the need to recognize “everyday rape.” She rightly argues that we need to take all rape seriously, but Ruffer created a hierarchy of harm just as she criticized it, drawing a distinction between “violent rape” and “everday rape [which] is more fluid and tricky to pin down.”

Repeat after me: Every rape is an act of violence. Every rape is a violent rape. There’s a reason why we use the terms “sexual violence” and “sexual assault”  — these acts are acts of violence on the body and mind. It does not matter whether there are cuts, bruises, or scars. Creating a hierarchy of sexual violence makes it easier to promote the status quo where many people believe that certain types of sexual violence are more simply more serious.

Years ago, I remember feeling that Tufts didn’t take my report seriously when I spoke to administrators about my attacks. I felt that the administration assumed that my experience was less traumatizing due to my relationship with my assailant because it was not “violent” enough for them. While there may not have been visible signs of harm on my body when I reported, I can tell you that it had a very real and large impact on my experience as a student at Tufts. We are in dangerous territory if we perpetuate the idea that some types of violence on campus are not as serious as others. There is a reason why many anti-violence activists have fought for the expansion of the definitions of various forms of violence from the FBI definition of rape to the recognition of marital rape. When we have individuals both within and outside the anti-violence community legitimize this concept, we are allowing certain survivors’ experiences to be completely ignored.
Wagatwe’s Avatar Wagatwe Wanjuki is the founder of Fuck Yeah, Feminists! on Tumblr & is on the board of directors of New York Abortion Access Fund.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/kristen/ Kristen B

    I know firsthand how damaging emotional abuse can be. I also know how damaging it can be to not recognize it for the abuse it is. Another point I would like to add is how emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical and sexual violence and that not taking it seriously leads individuals to ignore problem behavior and continue interaction with its perpetrator.