Let’s stop neglecting dating violence survivors

Image courtesy of Know Your IX

Image courtesy of Know Your IX

In the past few years, campus sexual assault has dominated headlines from The New York Times to USA Today, Rolling Stone to The Nation. Just last month, the White House released the It’s On Us anti-sexual assault campaign. All throughout, student activists have invoked the promise of Title IX to demand that their universities support sexual assault survivors and keep campuses safe, equitable, and just for all.

In all the buzz, though, there’s been little attention paid to other pervasive forms of gender-based violence also protected against under Title IX — including campus dating (or domestic) violence. ICYMI it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so it seems as good a time as any to talk about what we’re not talking about, and to work to ensure that the conversation lasts beyond October 31st. 

In their Title IX coverage, most media outlets have reported on dating violence poorly or not at all, either choosing to focus on brutal, sensationalized intimate partner homicides (and almost always those of straight white women), or erasing relationship abuse from campus dating violence survivors’ stories altogether (repackaging it as an isolated “attack,” just one prolonged “rape”). The White House refused to include dating violence in the rollout of the It’s On Us campaign, claiming that it would prohibitively “complicate” the issue. Prominent anti-rape survivors and activists have not infrequently suggested to me that dating violence simply isn’t as serious as gang rape and sexual assault.

Implicit in this refusal to acknowledge dating violence as worthy of our concern is a collective construction of hierarchies of harm, a framing of some forms of violence as more “real” and thus more important than others. It’s even worse when we talk about non-physical forms of violence, like emotional, psychological, and financial abuse by an intimate partner — experiences that are rarely named as violent and almost never treated as such. Dating violence sometimes looks like choking/hitting/beating/rape (our common cultural image of it), but often takes the form of gaslighting, monitoring social media, threatening suicide or self-harm in order to maintain control, or prohibiting certain clothes, certain activities, and certain friendships. Many of us who have suffered rape or other physical violence in the context of our relationships recall that emotional abuse and psychological manipulation were the worst parts of the violence.

Yet these are the harms we persistently lack the (legal) language to describe, the experiences to which our laws, our campus policies, our media and our Title IX activism are ceaselessly unresponsive. And even when our criminal laws do attempt to address intimate partner abuse, they often exacerbate it, arresting the survivor or both partners (a product of mandatory arrest laws), deporting victims, locking up perpetrators upon whom survivors are financially dependent, continue to share families or friends, or still love — or doing nothing at all, leaving victims exposed to (often intensified) abuse as a result.

The failures of the criminal justice system for dating and domestic violence survivors — particularly those who are undocumented, queer and trans women of color, or low- or no-income — are reasons why we need better civil responses to violence, of which Title IX offers one promising alternative.

While student activists have seized the law to push schools to take sexual assault seriously, Title IX protects survivors (female, male, or genderqueer) of any form of gender-based violence. Title IX recognizes that abuse — whether physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological — has real consequences on victims’ abilities to access education and requires, at least in theory, schools to act to remedy them. The law serves as one model for responding to violence outside of the prison system — one that’s imperfect for sure but that provides us a non-carceral space to dream better, to imagine new ways of supporting survivors, of holding perpetrators accountable, and of transforming our communities.

For instance, Title IX requires schools to take steps to ensure survivors can continue their educations. That might mean moving an abuser out of a shared dormitory or class, providing counseling and academic support services to a victim, or removing a perpetrator from campus. It might mean helping a survivor obtain a civil protection order (CPO), including providing free transportation to court to do so and excusing without penalty survivors missing class to secure a CPO (particularly since doing so often requires several visits to court). It should mean taking care not to publish students’ on- or off-campus addresses without their affirmative consent, as those of us who are dating violence and stalking survivors often live in fear of our abusers discovering where we live. It should mean implementing a standard (not mandatory) expulsion policy, as many survivors of dating violence feel reluctant to report their abuser out of concern that someone they love or loved will be expelled automatically, and unconditionally. (Sometimes that reluctance diminishes as a survivor meets other victims of the same abuser, or as they progress through the reporting process; regardless, it’s critical that schools preserve survivors’ control, and take care not to dissuade them from reporting by instituting a mandatory expulsion policy.) Know Your IX has more suggested campus dating violence policies on its website.

Yet so far, schools are utterly failing to support dating violence survivors. Last week I wrote about some 20 colleges and universities that have failed to comply with dating violence reporting requirements; in the week since, that number has nearly doubled. And accurately disclosing dating violence rates is just the bare minimum. Campus policies that only anticipate the needs of sexual assault victims will inevitably fail to respond to the experiences of intimate partner violence survivors in practice. It’s clear that the Department of Education needs to continue to step up its enforcement efforts and hold schools accountable for their abuses of all survivors of gender-based violence.

As a dating violence survivor myself, I often wonder why this form of violence hasn’t garnered the same level of national attention as campus rape, from the media, the public and, especially, from Title IX activists. I think our resistance to talking about campus dating violence is due, in large part, to a deep discomfort that comes with recognizing violence perpetrated not by strangers in the bushes or acquaintances at fraternity parties, but by the very people we love and trust most. A collective unease that violence doesn’t often look like a fist or a bruise but rather a promise of “I love you so much I had to follow you (or constantly check in on you) (or threaten you that I cannot live without you).” Dating abuse is confusing to its core, to all of us: sustained and prolonged, the sum of many nights spent arguing and days spent laughing, patterns of emotional manipulation normalized in film and music and art, and escalating in imperceptible ways until something breaks…and then breaks again and again.

To recognize violence that isn’t physical or sexual, in particular, is to acknowledge the far subtler, far more insidious ways in which power manifests in our society, in our homes, on our campuses, and in our most intimate relationships. And that’s downright terrifying.

IMG_4962Dana Bolger is a founding co-director of Know Your IX and contributor to Feministing. She tweets at @danabolger.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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