When I packed for college, my parents made sure that I had pepper spray — just in case I faced any surprise threats while walking alone at night. Though my mix of paranoia and caution led me to keep that pepper spray on my keychain, that fear is statistically less common than other threats. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only 19.5% of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, and 33% are committed by a former or current intimate partner. Fortunately, I have not had any need for the pepper spray nor the need for protection against dating violence, but for many college students, the latter is all too necessary and talked about far less than it should be.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently proposed rollbacks on essential Title IX protections, which coincides with a federal court case that also limits universities’ ability to protect victims of sexual assault. Until recently, universities could be held accountable for their students’ sexual misconduct, even if it happened off-campus. Additionally, pre-DeVos, universities were not allowed to perform informal mediation in sexual assault cases, which was historically used to avoid investigations.
However, with the bundle of dangerous deregulations comes one major improvement: the new Title IX rules reclassify dating violence, domestic violence and stalking as gender discrimination, meaning that these offenses will carry the same weight as sexual assault claims on college campuses. In other words, students now have more legal protection against intimate partner violence.
Though the University of Mississippi’s Title IX office had been accounting for relationship violence long before DeVos, the new federal guideline exposes a widespread and largely undiscussed facet of sexual misconduct on college campuses: people 18-24 years old face domestic and dating violence crimes more than any other age group.
Though intimate partner violence occurs all too often, those who face it can be afraid to come forward because of the threat of further abuse or the denial of their claims.
The Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, Candice Johnson, claimed that “90% of (sexual assaults) fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ or ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’” If even Johnson –– whose job is to promote justice in Title IX cases –– dismisses the claims of survivors outright, Americans still have a lot of work to do in understanding the severity of dating violence.
Sometimes the signs of intimate partner violence –– whether it be sexual or psychological abuse –– become clear far too late. Last summer, the University of Mississippi lost one of its brightest students, Ally Kostial. The person charged with murdering her? Brandon Theesfeld, who was said to be her on-again, off-again boyfriend. In recognizing intimate partner violence and stalking with the same severity as other forms of sexual misconduct, we are moving one step closer to justice for Ally and those who are unable to speak about their abuse.
Justice for survivors of intimate partner violence is slow-moving at the federal level. Let’s not forget that just 27 years ago, marital rape was legal in some states, and loopholes still remain. However, the meaningful inclusion of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking in Secretary DeVos’s otherwise troubling regulations is a positive step in protections for college students against sexual violence.
Katie Dames is a junior international studies major from St. Louis, Missouri.