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Four things the media gets wrong about the campus gender violence movement

Few modern movements have been as extensively documented as student organizing against gender-based violence. The fact that there’s a lot of coverage doesn’t mean it’s good coverage, though. Here are four things the media gets wrong about the survivors fighting for safer and more equitable campuses.

1. It’s new

Some reporters would have you think Title IX and the associated student movement both emerged out of a clamshell somewhere around 2011. But the truth is that students have been using Title IX to combat campus gender violence since at least 1977, when a group of Yale undergrads filed a law suit claiming that their college had violated Title IX by failing to provide effective avenues through which to report sexual harassment. Although the suit, known as Alexander v. Yale, failed on technical grounds, it helped establish the fact that Title IX requires schools to prevent and respond to sexual violence. I see a lot of newspaper articles, including in big papers, that claim Title IX didn’t cover sexual assault until 2011, when the Department of Education issued an important guidance letter, but that’s just wrong — and some sloppy fact-checking.

The decades between Alexander and this most recent wave were full of innovative campus organizing, many of which informed today’s efforts. I love this piece in Brown University’s feminist magazine Bluestockings, written by Sophia Seawell and Patricia Ekpo, tracing a quarter century of anti-rape organizing on their campus (and, in particular, in bathroom stalls).

Remembering this history is an issue of journalistic accuracy, respect for our activist foremothers, and a key to understanding the nature of the problem. Campus rape wasn’t invented in 2011. Everyone just started listening then.

2. It’s centralized

One of my favorite (read: least favorite) articles about campus rape was a recent Washington Post piece pondering why “the movement” was worse at picking survivor stories than the ACLU. There are so many things wrong with the idea of comparing good v. bad stories, but I want to focus here on the structures compared. The ACLU is a national legal non-profit. It has hundreds, probably thousands, of full-time employees across the country. They work in offices. People are paid, promoted, and fired. There is a CEO. The “stories” they pick are law suits carefully crafted on behalf of plaintiffs selected for hitting all the right notes with the courts.

There is no downtown New York office for the movement. There is no central decision-making body that decides which survivor is going to tell his or her story today. There is no central decision-making body. That’s not to say organizers aren’t making smart, strategic decisions, and there certainly are organizations within the movement (mine, Know Your IX, is one of them). Students on different campuses are sharing strategies and supporting one another in their efforts to make campus, state, and national change. To borrow language from Black Lives Matter, it is not a leaderless but a leader-full movement. It’s a movement of thousands of students pushing toward equality and justice, not a centralized force sending out marching orders to troops on campuses across the country.

Simple narrative sell better. So it’s no wonder journalists tend to talk about the movement like a single organization: they want to pick the CEOs and tell heart-wrenching stories with a single public face. But if you hear about the organization or the person leading the charge — well, you’ve heard wrong.

3. It’s all about white, cis, straight girls

The only way this is true is that the media coverage of campus sexual assault organizing is all about white, cis, straight girl. That certainly doesn’t represent who survivor-activists are. As writers like Wagatwe Wanjuki and Princess Harmony Rodriguez have long said, the media’s narrow focus  presents a distorted vision of the problem on the ground. Rodriguez wrote on Black Girl Dangerous this year about how the collective silence around violence against QTPOC deprives marginalized survivors of a powerful organizing tool to force their schools to change: public scrutiny. Nothing gets a college moving quicker than bad headlines, but only a certain kind of victim is allowed that exposure.

The narrow focus reinforces itself as journalists look to previous articles and media appearances to figure out who is worth talking to and celebrating. But some of my favorite journalists have made special efforts to highlight the experiences of a diverse group of survivors, which I think is really rad. I hope others follow their lead.

4. It’s all about punishment

Over the past few months I’ve had a couple frustrating conversations with older feminists asking why the movement doesn’t care about prevention, or accommodations, or something else other than punishment. Those conversations get to me for two reasons.

The first is that, as a movement largely led by women, we are constantly required to be less angry, more forgiving, more accommodating — and it’s frustrating to hear that pressure from within the ranks. What’s so awful about wanting accountability for rapists? Rape and other forms of sexual harassment have gone unaddressed at schools for years and even today most students who are found responsible for sexual assault are not expelled. For plenty of survivors, removing their assailants from campus is essential for their continued education.

But the second reason the questions bug me is that organizers do care about issues beyond sanctions. Across the country, students are working hard to ensure schools offer meaningful, not-super-gross prevention programs and a whole host of services, like mental health accommodations, tutoring, and dorm changes, that victims may need. The media would just rather report on another poor boy kicked out of school than on student-led education efforts or advocacy to expand free services that don’t saddle low-income students with more debt. The work is happening. Expulsions just make for better stories.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at 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

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