Our rock is the truth

by Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director

It began with an email that several faculty members from a small liberal arts college shared with me. It was from their school’s Title IX Coordinator, shared with all faculty and staff of their school, informing them about the school’s mandatory reporting policy* for sexual violence. The pitch of the letter was pretty simple: “If you see something, YOU MUST REPORT. If you hear something, YOU MUST REPORT. If a student tells you something, YOU MUST REPORT.” That was the message to faculty and staff.

“Does this seem right to you?” they asked me.

***

One challenge with working in sexual violence advocacy in 2018 is that no matter what specific thing I’m trying to get done, 2018 just keeps happening. 2018 is the gift that won’t stop giving. As I processed my thoughts about that email and its injunctions, the backdrop was the brutal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and the public treatment of the women who came forward with stories about their experiences with Kavanaugh’s sexual violence.

On the subject of reporting sexual violence, let me speak briefly about what has been done to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who truly had no good options. Her anonymous report to her congresswoman was leaked and ultimately reported by The Intercept; she came forward with her name only when it became clear to her that nothing meaningful would happen if she didn’t. She also came forward because she felt a responsibility to do so. She wanted to prevent further harm being done. In that latter quality, she reminds me of just about every survivor who has ever come to Into Account for help.

I saw that he had this job with kids and I knew he was going to hurt them.

I knew if I didn’t say something and he raped again, it would be on me.

I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else.

Ultimately, Ford testified in front of the Senate—and the American public—with far fewer legal and personal protections in place than would be tolerable in a courtroom, despite the attempts of her lawyers to secure them for her. And at the end of that, the Senate demonstrated how little they cared by burning through every chance for investigation and due process and confirming Kavanaugh anyway. The outcome she risked her life to prevent came to pass, and her life is still at risk.

Americans have endlessly debated her credibility. Her personal life has been made public. She receives hate mail and death threats, and at such a volume that she and her family have essentially been forced into hiding. Her story and her personhood have been cruelly mocked from pulpits, in news rooms, and most shamefully, by the sexual predator who currently occupies the Oval Office.

The collective laughter of vicious boys and men, the thing that Ford has testified most powerfully marked her trauma, is haunting all of us right now. My own survivor trauma involves such laughter. I was a child, and the boys who assaulted me were my age, not more than seven or eight. My memory is patchy and I have no clean narrative of these incidents. But I have clear memories of the laughter, of how amused they were by my anger and my efforts to fight them off. Indelible in the hippocampus.

***

Reporting doesn’t put a stop to the laughter. Ask Christine Blasey Ford. Ask some of our clients. Ask any woman who has gone public and then endured the taunting of men who debate the veracity of her story by assessing her perceived physical attractiveness.

There’s the laughter, and then there’s the outrage, the how dare she. Ford has been accused of ruining Kavanaugh’s life, of inventing her story to serve a nefarious political agenda. She’s been called a liar, but by the insidious abuser logic that grips so much of our public discourse, she’s also been accused of making too much out of a thing that may well have happened but that she should have gotten over. It didn’t happen, but if it did happen, it wasn’t a big deal. She’s a liar, but if she’s not a liar, she’s being oversensitive. Legions of conservative white women on social media endeavored to be offended by her on behalf of their boys and men, whose lives, they speculated, could be so easily ruined by conniving women like Dr. Ford. At the reeking floor of this cultural cesspit is the assertion that all boys do this, all men do this, and it’s the job of the rest of us to put up with it. If we can’t, there’s something wrong with us.

The day of Ford’s testimony, one of our former clients posted her story on social media, about her sexually abusive ex-boyfriend, whom she reported through a university Title IX process:

People I had always liked and admired, people I thought were decent and level headed, sided with my ex. I was “crazy”, “wanted to ruin his life”, and “why hadn’t I said anything earlier”?

It was devastating. I had been taken to the court of public opinion, then executed in the town square. Of course, some people did ask for my side of the story, and it was exhausting to have to retell and relive my personal hell over and over again. But I did it, I felt like I needed to.

So often, when we report, when we come forward, this is how it goes. Yet we’re told that we must report. The responsible thing to do is report. If we report, people can do something about it, and if we don’t report, we can’t blame people for doing nothing.

We’re told that it’s our responsibility to make people do something other than nothing. For that, we should be willing to risk being blamed for everything.

***

Which brings me back to that Title IX email. Which I hated.

It’s not that the policy itself was a surprise to me. I’m used to dealing with reporting policies like this, and they’re not the fault of the relatively inexperienced Title IX coordinator who wrote this email. She may well have had the fear of God put into her about the school’s vulnerability to lawsuits, should they not be able to prove that they are receptive to reports of campus sexual assault. At colleges and universities across the U.S., policies that require all personnel to report any suspected sexual violence to the school’s Title IX Coordinator have become standard. In defiance of the accumulated wisdom of professional victim advocacy in the fields of sexual, intimate partner, and domestic violence prevention, these policies require such reporting regardless of the actual wishes of victims.

I’ll put this in the starkest terms I can think of. Imagine you are a trusted faculty or staff member for a student who confides in you that her boyfriend is hitting her and raping her. She wants to leave him, but he’s threatened to kill her if she does. Like many abusers, he has isolated her from her friends and family, and she doesn’t know who she can trust. She’s terrified, and she needs to talk through her options with someone who can help her find resources without triggering an administrative process that she could lose control of.

This is a student whose life is in danger. This is a student who desperately needs help that doesn’t strip away her own agency or decision-making power. She likely knows better than anybody else what actions–her own or the school’s–might set off a fatal response from her abuser. This is a student that a lot of empathic women faculty have had in their offices. This is not an occasion for YOU MUST REPORT. It is unconscionable to ask a faculty or staff person sitting in front of such a student to make a choice between risking that student’s life and risking their own job.

Contrary to popular belief, federal law doesn’t technically require these blanket reporting policies. Reporting campus sexual violence involves two broad areas of relevant law: one is civil rights law (Title IX) and one is campus safety law (Clery Act). Title IX regulations require mandatory reporting from “responsible employees,” a category whose federal definition is so ambiguous as to almost be circular.  The Clery Act requires it from “campus security authorities.” For a variety of reasons–the ambiguity in these categories, for instance, and the newly vast for-profit industry of products aimed at helping campuses achieve compliance with these federal laws–blanket mandatory reporting policies have become the default setting in higher education, even though they are not legally required.

I’ve read and heard many perspectives on these policies from people in academia. They aren’t popular policies with faculty, for instance. I have faculty friends who routinely receive reports of sexual or domestic violence and flat-out refuse to comply with the mandate to forward these reports to their Title IX office, because these faculty friends cannot in good conscience take away a victim’s agency and would rather risk their jobs. I’ve also heard multiple people–people who are probably less likely to receive reports of sexual violence–refer to these policies as a “sex panic.”

But this isn’t a sex panic. It’s a liability panic. From a legal perspective, blanket mandatory reporting policies at higher ed institutions make perfect sense. The most cynical interpretation, which I believe is operative on some level in pretty much every institution that has these policies, is that the policies help to legally absolve schools of responsibility for any sexual violence that isn’t officially reported, while at the same time making it less likely that survivors will talk about sexual violence at all.

YOU MUST REPORT. If you don’t, that says, you’re not our problem.

***

In the weeks after the client I quoted above went forward with her report of her abuser, the blowback against her was gut-wrenchingly awful. This is when my fortitude as an advocate is always tested: I see the suffering of our clients at the outcome of an action they’ve taken, and I fight off the temptation to fantasize about omnipotence. If I indulge that fantasy, then I can believe that there might have been an alternative I could have encouraged that would lead to justice without all the trauma. I wish I could learn how to be a better advocate from that fantasy, but I know I can’t.

I remember one particular phone conversation with this client and Into Account co-founder Jay Yoder. Jay recounted to her the mantra that carried Jay through a similarly grueling period of communal attacks. It went like this: What happened is real. What happened is true. I am standing on a rock, and that rock is the truth.

It’s this mantra I come back to when I sit in the pain of all my collected experiences and observations about what happens after survivors come forward, whether through formal processes or informal disclosure. There is all that pain, and then there is the reality that I still want survivors to speak, when they can. I still want survivors to come forward and say what has happened to them.

Because truth is a rock. That’s why. Not because I believe that individual survivors bear the responsibility to protect their communities from their perpetrators, or because I believe that the legal and bureaucratic processes available to survivors are truly designed to produce justice. It’s not because I believe I can save anyone from the re-traumatization that these processes so frequently deliver.

It’s because I’ve seen the power of the truth to heal. Lies may spread like wildfire, but truth is like a geological miracle. When survivors tell the truth about what happened to them, even as the flames burn around them, they’re standing on rocks that are expanding, searching, merging. Our rocks become a mountain range. We become summits, together.

I categorically refuse to concede the power inherent in the truth. I can’t control any community’s collective denial about its own sickness. But I can stand with you on your rock. I can bring you water. If you’re too tired to stand, or don’t have standing legs, we’ll sit. If you need to lie on the ground, we’ll lie on the ground. We’ll feel the solidity beneath us. We won’t know what comes next, but that’s okay. That’s the way of things.

What we will know, what I will remind you of when you need to hear it, is that all of our truths together have more power than we can fathom.


 

*What we call “mandatory reporting” at a college or university is materially different from mandatory reporting laws for child abuse. When you are a mandatory reporter as a result of a job that puts you in regular contact with children, you’re legally obligated to report any suspected child abuse to law enforcement, and failure to do so puts you at risk of arrest. When you’re a mandatory reporter at a college or university, you’re required to report any suspected sexual violence against a student to your school’s Title IX Coordinator, and failure to do so puts you at risk of losing your job.