IX graduation hats

Let’s talk about Title IX and fair process

Welcome to the backlash.

With every action comes an equal and opposite reaction, so we always had to know that progress in the fight to end campus gender-based violence would provoke a negative response. And our opponents primary tactic is clever: I see anti-feminists claiming fair process for themselves. As schools reconsider their disciplinary procedures, these critics position their camp as the sole defenders of procedural protections (like the opportunity to be informed of the details of the complaint and present counter-evidence to a neutral investigator) for students accused of gender-based violence. The way they write, you’d think anyone who cares about justice for student-survivors obviously wants rigged disciplinary hearings that don’t give respondents a chance to stand up for themselves.

It’s an easy, seductive political narrative, but it’s not true. Most feminists — motivated by principles of equality and justice and invested in the legitimacy of our responses to violence misogyny — deeply care about fair decision-making when it comes to punishing gender-based violence. Many of us resist violence in all its forms, from rape to incarceration, and building respected campus responses to gendered harms creates space to imagine other alternatives to the criminal justice system.

The false dichotomy between care for survivors and care for the accused’s rights does a disservice to the policy debate and all those involved. We can’t identify methods to protect both parties if we pretend the interests of ending gender-based violence and ensuring fair deliberations are mutually exclusive rather than mutually dependent.

Developing a perfect, comprehensive response to this anti-feminist fair process narrative will take more time. Sure, some of these arguments are easy to take down: for example, many critics claim campus disciplinary procedures should have all the protections of a criminal trial, including evidence to support confidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In doing so, they ignore the meaningful differences between the stakes of a disciplinary hearing (expulsion at worst) and of a criminal trial (incarceration); due process works along a sliding scale, proportionate to the potential harms to the accused. And the insistence that we provide more protections for students accused of sexual assault than to their classmates facing plagiarism charges is rooted in age-old misogynistic myths of hoards of women “crying rape.”

But some of the policy questions are harder, and, as schools continue to struggle and reinvent, we as feminists need an affirmative, robust vision of what fair process for students accused of gender-based harms will look like. Creating that vision will require our collective investigation of tons of important, nitty-gritty policy choices within the long-ignored territory of campus disciplinary decision-making. How can accused students direct questions to complainants without perpetuating a hostile environment? How can schools seek the information they need without forcing students who face simultaneous criminal charges to self-incriminate? How can the parties best direct investigators to witnesses while preserving confidentiality? The list (which does not make a fascinating blog post, I will admit) goes on and on.

I keep trying to rush the progress: I started working in support of incarcerated people and criminal defendants before I got involved in Title IX policy work and feel personally invested in working this all out immediately. So I started writing my law school thesis on procedural protections for students accused of gender-based harms this September with the delusional idea that I’d be done by now (lol sorry advisor). I am currently on draft 37 of an op-ed on the same topic. And I keep freezing up, taking one more stab, deleting everything and starting over, getting mired in details. I don’t have final answers yet, and probably won’t for a while.

So, here’s my first shot at addressing the issue, rather than waiting until I have complete answers to every question about campus disciplinary procedures. One of the things I like most about blogging, even though it’s scary, is the opportunity to think out loud, to air incomplete thoughts, and to get feedback from others: there are lots of other people thoughtfully working on this issue, some for years.

I’m still working out a lot of the details, but here’s what I’m sure of so far:

I know that caring about procedural protections for the accused doesn’t mean you don’t believe survivors or recognize schools’ long-standing tolerance for violence. I also know that survivors have hurt for so long that concern for those who have harmed us can feel like a betrayal.

I know that, to end assault and abuse, we need well-respected decision-making mechanisms whose findings are accepted as legitimate by the involved parties and the public. I know that schools are handling these investigations poorly in many different ways, and some of these failures may hurt accused students as well as survivors. I know, from reading complaints from accused and accusing students alike, that both sides demand many of the same reforms: notice of rights, speedy investigations, impartial boards, consistent enforcement.

I know that demands that campus adjudication include all the protections of the criminal justice system ignore the fact that getting kicked out of school pales in comparison to being incarcerated. I also know that our fight to preserve educational opportunities for survivors is motivated by a recognition of the vital right to learn, so we cannot dismiss the impact of expulsion, even as we call for schools to remove from campus students who seriously harm their classmates.

And I know that, despite false narratives of a feminist monolith in love with prisons and punishment, the best of the movement has always worked to ensure protections even for those who may have done despicable things.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

Read more about Alexandra

Join the Conversation