The XX Factor

Domestic Violence Is As Serious a Problem on Campus As Sexual Assault

Much attention has been paid to Title IX and sexual assault, but little discussion has focused on its protections against domestic violence.

Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Katie Baker at BuzzFeed has a new piece out about one of the less attention-getting aspects of Title IX: that it’s supposed to protect students against domestic violence as well as sexual assault. Baker interviews students at various schools who have filed Title IX complaints against ex-boyfriends for hitting, sexually abuse, or stalking and emotional abuse. Unfortunately, their stories echo some of what we’ve heard about how colleges handle sexual assault complaints: Baker’s interviewees report that even though their schools did agree that abuse had happened, they failed to take it seriously or keep the abusers off campus.

“The next wave of Title IX activism, researchers and activists say, will focus on how colleges investigate allegations of and provide resources to students in abusive relationships,” Baker writes. “And it’s going to be just as complicated and contentious.”

If anything, getting the public to understand this issue is even more of an uphill battle than it is with sexual assault. There’s a widespread public perception, built on movies and hand-wringing articles about “hookup culture,” that campus life is all about partying and casual sex. It’s relatively easy to get people to imagine sexual assault occurring in that environment. If anything, the problem is that people are blaming the environment itself for sexual assault, instead of choices made by rapists to rape

In reality, hookup culture is not the exclusive or even dominant culture of colleges, and kids are almost as likely to opt into long-term dating relationships as they were in previous generations. That’s why domestic violence is, as Baker notes, just as serious a problem as sexual violence on campus:

Some studies show that the oft-reported statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted during college also applies to domestic violence, often called “dating violence” or “intimate partner violence.” Around 20% of college students report having experienced dating violence by a current partner, and college-aged women (16–24) experience the highest rate of dating violence than any other age group, according to the Justice Department. Studies also show that dating violence disproportionately affects the long-term health of women of color.

It’s worth noting, as the stories Baker relates show, that sexual violence is often present in abusive relationships, neatly disproving the theory that rape is the result of hookup culture instead of people making the deliberate choice to sexually assault. 

One victim in Baker’s piece felt that school officials couldn’t take her relationship seriously and therefore didn’t take her complaints seriously, seeing her as “a crazy ex-girlfriend.” Others complained that the school engaged in foot-dragging or inadequate enforcement, allowing the abuser to get back onto campus where he might have a chance at pestering his victim. 

But if deployed correctly, Title IX could be an incredibly effective weapon to fight domestic violence. College students are of an age when the risk for being victimized is at its highest, for one thing.  Title IX might also have a leg up on law enforcement in some ways. A lot of victims don’t want to see their abusers—who they fell in love with, after all—going to jail; they just want the abuse to end. Title IX can help meet victims where they’re at, by focusing on protecting the victim from the abuser rather than trying to throw him in jail. 

The blunt instrument of the law also makes it hard to suss out some of the complexities of an abusive relationship. The law is reductive, focused on who hit whom and when. But Title IX allows adjudicators to look at the relationship as a whole, to suss out patterns of abuse. It’s not just that he hit you, but that he hit you while also terrorizing you on Facebook, sending threatening emails, dressing you down all the time, and controlling who you see and what you do. Since the question isn’t one of putting someone in jail, but rather of deciding if he gets to stay at school, the behavior can be measured in its fullness instead of in discrete, law-breaking moments of guilt. Schools should start taking this question seriously.