Title IX, Rape, and Religion
What should feminist scholars in religious and theological studies do about the recent developments related to Title IX? After all, even the federal government is currently involved in trying to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault from US-American colleges and university. The situation is indeed dire, as a survey of September 2015 indicates. The responses of about 150,000 students at 27 elite universities show that 1 in 4 undergraduate women students experiences some form of sexual assault during her college years.
It is crucial to understand that the current interpretation of Title IX that includes sexual harassment and sexual assault as a Title IX violation is owed to student initiatives. More precisely, the publicity seems to have begun with the campus situation at Yale University when after several years of reports about sexist shouting and bantering on that campus sixteen Yale students filed a complaint about Yale being a “sexually hostile environment which prevents women from participating in campus life as fully as men.” Then, on March 31, 2011, the Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation of Yale University for possible violation of Title IX. Many other Title IX complaints have been filed at the Department of Education since.
The documentary film, investigating the issue of sexual assaults on US campuses, called The Hunting Ground, focuses on a team of alumnae led by Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark who experienced rape and sexual assault while they were students at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill in March 2012 and 2007 respectively. In 2013, their team of five former students filed a Title IX complaint against UNC in 2013.
Many schools have been found to have violated Title IX requirements, and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating more than one hundred schools.
In fact, the agency is overwhelmed by the backlog of ongoing Title IX investigations into how campuses handle sexual assault cases. News agencies report that “three Democrats in the U.S. Senate are asking Congress to direct more money toward the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the group that handles Title IX Clery Act complaints. Since 1995, the OCR’s staff decreased from 788 full-time workers to 544 while complaints have risen from 4,981 to 9,989.”
So the situation is dire and schools are scrambling to get into compliance with the law for fear of losing their federal grant money although, so far, OCR has never withdrawn federal funding as part of a diagnosed violation.
So how does all of this pertain to the feminist study of religion and theology? I want to argue that Title IX addresses an “inherently” feminist issue. Have women not experienced sexual violence, rape, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in most places and during most times in known human history? This is not an essentializing or de-historicizing question, because feminist historians have studied sexual violence and rape in various historical moments and places.
Here are two examples that illustrate that feminist thinkers have addressed the problem of sexual violence and rape for decades although so many people still do not know about these important feminist studies. Already in 1983, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall emphasizes the need to study specific and particular historical time periods to elucidate the contextualized nature of sexual violence. Like other feminist thinkers, Hall stresses that any analysis about sexual violence and rape “must make clear its stand against all uses of violence for the purpose of oppression.”
Another important feminist thinkers is Angela Y. Davis who regards rape as a symptom of all kinds of pervasive structures of violence in society. In 1981, she connects gender, race, and class in the following powerful statement:
“The class structure of capitalism encourages men who wield power in the economic and political realm to become routine agents of sexual exploitation. The present rape epidemic occurs at a time when the capitalist class is furiously reasserting its authority in face of global and internal challenges. Both racism and sexism, central to its domestic strategy of increased economic exploitation, are receiving unprecedented encouragement. It is not a mere coincidence that as the incidence of rape has arisen, the position of women workers has visibly worsened. So severe are women’s economic losses that their wages in relationship to men are lower than they were a decade ago. The proliferation of sexual violence is the brutal face of a generalized intensification of the sexism which necessarily accompanies this economic assault.”
I mention these two feminist theorists because they thought deeply about sexual violence in the world.
Standing on their shoulders, as well as on the shoulders of many other feminist thinkers on sexual violence, I want to suggest that we should not leave it to our Title IX Coordinators alone to tackle the current publicity on campus rape and sexual assault.
But how to contribute?
Many of us do not have access to the funds necessary to sponsor cross-disciplinary conferences on the intersection of Title IX, rape, and religion. Many of us also assumed we were done with this topic although we recognize the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the lives of so many women, girls, boys, and some men. Some of us have also moved on to tackling the importance of intersectional feminist analysis, which for the most part moved sexual violence out of the center since the late 1990s. It seemed as if rape and sexual violence were too close to essentializing gender.
My own work was affected by this trend. After I had written two books on rape in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, I started to focus my work elsewhere in 2010. Yet reports of rape, as they have trickled in from the U.S. military and many other parts of the world, including the Vatican, made me look up again and again, noticing that, of course, sexual violence and rape occur far too often in so many different places, without an end in sight.
Then, since 2011, even my own university had to deal with the ramifications of having been found in violatation of Title IX. In our own backyards, in the places where we teach and research and work, undergraduate students experience sexual violence and rape, and the Department of Education is trying to implement rules and regulations in the effort to eliminate this epidemic from our campuses.
So perhaps we should again develop courses on rape in religion, address the topic of sexual violence in sacred texts such as the bible (e.g. in Genesis 12, 20, 26, 30, 34, 35:22a, 39, Judges 3, 19-21, 2 Samuel 13, Hosea 2, Jeremiah 20, Ezekiel 16, 23, etc.), and specifically raise the issue of Title IX in connection to our various religious traditions. Why is it that these days the U.S.-government is so far ahead of what is so often asserted and practiced in various religious traditions?
Or perhaps we need to invite each other to lectures on Title IX and religion, perhaps co-sponsored by our various Title IX Offices and President’s Offices? And how about engaging the religious institutions out there and encouraging them to address the ongoing rape crisis in the USA and elsewhere in connection with race, ethnicity, class, homophobia, or neocolonialism?
Above all, let’s support this student-based movement that has come up with the slogan “Not Alone” and offer our scholarly resources and expertise so that we, too, contribute again to ending sexual violence of any form on every campus, in conjunction with challenging the various comprehensive structures of domination and violence in the world, often perpetrated by U.S. military actions in the world.