The Campus is a Microsom: A Web Series in Response to Sexual Assault

Next month, a new year of freshmen will enter colleges across the United States. Outside of taking on loans and the pressure to decide on what career path to commit to at eighteen, the moment of starting college is pitched as a time of burgeoning curiosity -- possibility.

For many, it is. And as a former college lecturer, and an optimist, this is exactly what I want starting university to be for students. I want the delight of them not knowing what’s ahead to remain so. I want for any class that piques even a minor interest of a student to have a bounty of seats available. I want for students to enter their futures on equal footing.

 There are many reasons we know, but far too often choose not to ignore, as to why such as a wish remains implausible in America. From our failure to attend to our own history -- the lack of reparations for black Americans, the hostility towards immigrants of color, the casting out of native populations, the continued destruction of land and environmental commons, the punishment of women who speak against their abusers -- our institutions, even ones meant to empower and educate, often reinforce the limitations put on a life in this country.

 When I wrote my web series about the mishandling of sexual assault complaints on college campuses, The University, I wanted to better understand how these bureaucracies worked. I was an undergraduate at the time and my own school was under federal investigation for violating the strictures of Title IX. There were dozens of stories from that year alone, including the delay of a valuable athlete’s case being put off for years. I learned that the first two months of being on campus was known as “the Red Zone” and was the most likely time for a student to be assaulted, that a majority of survivors (the DOJ puts it at 90%) knew their assailant ahead of time, that male students were less likely to seek help given messaging around masculinty, that alcohol facililtated many of the assaults, often employed as a date rape drug with the frats and other party hosts known to rape other students an open campus secret, as known abusers so often are. But, for as many complaints as there were that my university botched, along with hundreds of other schools, later profiled in The Hunting Ground, most survivors keep their assault a secret. It’s rare to report.

 These facts felt like betrayals. I was not in an equal, progressive space at all, but one that was still deeply tied to societal failures. And what exactly could effectively engaging the Title IX process do about it? According to End Rape on Campus (EROC), a leading sexual violence prevention and policy-change non-profit, “Under Title IX, schools must ensure that all students have equal access to education, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are forms of gender discrimination that are prohibited by Title IX, including when the incident(s) occur off-campus or involve people who are not students.” Paired with the Clery Act, another federal law, campuses are required to educate students on their rights after an assault and to notify all parties involved during the grievance process.

 Title IX was established in 1972 and famously advanced women’s equality in athletics, but became a platform to address other gender-based inequities on campuses. The policy was really built off of efforts of early intersectional civil rights leaders, like Pauli Murray whose “States Laws on Race and Color” (1950) influenced the legal approach taken in Brown v. Board of Ed. and reverbretated into the Civil Rights Act & the Equal Pay Act, becoming the foundational ideology that brought Title IX into being.

 My own desire for clarity around the process, to discover the ways in which my campus needed to evolve, made me think there might be others who might need the same. I hoped that by writing a story that examined the community of a campus -- the administrators and the students who witness, experience, and perpetuate abuse, alongside the professors and other staff members who make up this ecosystem -- that I might arrive at some sort of answer as to where empathy had been stunted, where ignorance and cruelty prevailed.

 This is what drives The University, and I’m thrilled to share our third episode with the world today. Each part of the series introduces a new voice to piece together not just what happened on the night of an assault, but how each individual comes to understand themselves in the knowledge of this, or resists responsibility. The reporting process itself develops its own narrative, one in which we come to question what justice might mean.

 On our website, healing and change nonprofits have donated resources for our website so that our viewers can have tangible steps to respond to and prevent sexual violence. Each episode features music from an independent artist, like Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, Katie P. Bennett as free cake for every creature, and in the episode we are sharing with you today, Dog Tears, so that as the series grows, other artists may join us.

 At the end of the day, I’m not a legal scholar or a policymaker, but an artist. And from this practice, I can only wonder, what if? What if administrators and police could see the fullness of the stories that are brought to them, see the small moments of self-blame and indecision that trauma breeds in an individual? Would this change their hearts? Would seeing that story change the hearts of those who move quickly to distrust a survivor? Would telling this story create a foundation on which a full, complex conversation around reporting, healing, justice, and cultural change could occur?

Like I said, I’m an optimist, despite my best efforts. Because of this, I would speculate that the schools that will lead this shift will be the ones who dare to look deeply at themselves.


Juliana RothComment