The Fraternity Men I Thought I Knew (May)

In May 2019, the Rights Writers discussed what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topics and how including them increase understanding or contribute to progress of the issue.

The concept was simple enough. Earlier in the year, I had performed a monologue about a survivor dealing with mental illness and new relationships in the aftermath of her sexual assault. Now, I was being asked to perform that monologue in front of chapters of fraternities at my university. The idea was to get fraternity men to understand a little more about what it’s really like to survive sexual assault, in order to create enough empathy to have honest, productive conversations about consent, sexual violence, and university culture.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure that it would work.

Despite my doubts, I said yes. Come March, I stood at the front of a dimly lit lecture hall, trembling as seventy pairs of eyes locked on me. I wasn’t nervous or dealing with stage fright. I was terrified. What had I been thinking—coming into a space dominated by mostly white males and expecting them to take me seriously?  My leg started shaking so badly, I worried I might fall over.

Thankfully, months of rehearsal had converted my monologue to muscle memory. I opened my mouth and let the words fall out. As I spoke the final words of the piece, written anonymously by a woman attending my university, I noticed that the sighs and fidgeting that filled the room at the beginning of my performance had stopped. “I’ve welcomed the feeling of being alive every day since.” The last line hung in the air. The pause that followed felt deafening. Finally, mercifully, applause.

Sonali Mehta Monologue

The conversation that ensued was astonishing. At my university, 48% of undergraduate women report sexual assault at some point over their four years. Quickly, the men realized that meant they must all know survivors—whether those individuals choose to disclose their experiences of sexual violence or not. They realized that they have ultimate control over the culture and values of their organization. They realized that it was their responsibility to ensure that the social spaces they created were as safe as possible. As we left the men thanked us repeatedly, saying things like “I can’t believe I didn’t know that” and “I’m so glad you guys came in today”.

I’ve spent the majority of my college career working on sexual violence prevention at my university. All along, I implicitly viewed men, fraternity men, as the enemy. I had heard far too many stories of crimes perpetrated by men at parties held by fraternities. I knew far too many women who had been transformed into survivors after bad nights out. A study published by psychologist Rita Seabrook in Violence Against Women suggests that sexual violence may be “reinforced among fraternity members as they are both more likely to perpetrate sexual assault and less likely to be blamed”. I didn’t hate these men; in many cases, I was scared of them.

Many prevention efforts in higher education reflect the same sentiment, targeting fraternity members as potential perpetrators. However, the efficacy of such efforts have not been demonstrated. Part of the reason prevention efforts have failed may be that they pit men and women against one another, women as victims and men as perpetrators. However, viewing fraternity men monolithically as the problem or refusing to consider them as part of the solution is to the detriment of everyone involved. Instead, prevention efforts should reframe their approach: bring men into the conversations by affirming their willingness and ability to create positive change, and acknowledging that many men are survivors themselves.

At one meeting, a senior spoke up in front of the rest of the group. “We set the culture of this organization. The upperclassmen create the culture and the identity of this group, we decide if certain behaviors are acceptable or not. It’s up to us to teach freshman who we are and what we do. We have to make sure we’re teaching them the right things.”

Universities are slow to introduce change; governments even slower. By contrast, culture can change with the wind, with the concentrated efforts of those who seek to change it. Preventing sexual violence—imagining a world in which sexual violence does not exist—is more complex than changing policy or redefining consent. That work requires honest conversations. It requires us to reckon with the people and spaces we love, and to interrogate if those things are truly safe. Why not allow fraternity men to take responsibility for the spaces they control and encourage them to make those spaces safer? Instead of working against each other, why not work together?

A Little Less Afraid (April)

In April 2019, the Rights Writers discussed the role of advocacy groups and social movements in promoting human rights and social justice in their area.

written after studying abroad in Santiago, Chile with Spencer George

“Love Girls, Hate Abusers,” reads the wall I walked past on the way to the bus station every morning, the words painted in bold red letters against a pink-and-white backdrop. Set against the grey skies, the mural is striking, unmissable. Even in a suburban neighborhood such as mine, the message is clear: the feminist movement has come to Chile.

Love Girls, Hate Abusers

Earlier this year, sexual harassment cases throughout Chile’s universities provoked #EducaciónNoSexista (A Non-Sexist Education), a feminist movement which has spread to universities across the country. Initiated last April, protests began at the University of Chile Law School in response to allegations of professors assaulting students, riding the wave of a mismanaged sexual assault case at Universidad Austral in Valdivia last year. Within two months, the movement had spread to 14 universities and two high school campuses across Chile.

As a female college student in the U.S., I am no stranger to the epidemic of sexual violence on campuses. A 2015 Campus Climate survey of students across 27 universities found than 1 in 4 female undergraduate students experienced sexual misconduct. In the last fifteen years in particular, college administrations have increased their focus on the issue of sexual violence, in no small part due to the tireless work of student activists, feminist organizations, and the guidelines established by the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. Organizations such as End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX have completed important work to create legal pathways and support resources for survivors of sexual violence.

However, college students and feminist organizations in the U.S. have much to gain by adopting the Chilean strategy of reclaiming autonomy through physical protest. Historically, protest in Chile has been more radical than in the U.S., with a large emphasis on the importance of human bodies. Tools such as physical occupation and protest art— often in the form of graffiti—play a far greater role here in pushing the feminist movement towards achieving its goals. At protests such as the university occupation on May 11, thousands of feminist protestors took to the streets, shutting down Friday rush hour through their sheer numbers. In videos that emerged from the protest, many women are shirtless with their faces covered and fists raised in the air.

The feminist movement in Chile is responding to prolonged violations against the bodies of students, and the impunity with which perpetrators have been able to act. Protest allows women to take back control–of their stories, their spaces on campus, and perhaps most importantly, their bodies. Protestors have expressed feelings of empowerment tied to the solidarity of standing shoulder to shoulder with other women, using their bodies as a form of performative protest. Their methods are radical and meant to provoke viewers into action by eliciting shock and anger.

Feminism in Chile

In her initial complaint to Universidad Austral, one sexual assault survivor said, “I am very afraid of what this could lead to, but I cannot continue remaining silent.” In response, attendees at the protests across Chile took to social media, flooding their Instagram feeds to repeat a single statement: “We are not afraid.”              Of course, protests have their limits. Conflict within the movement ensued as different organizations hoped to achieve different goals. Although President Sebastian Piñera did address the movement with the reveal of his “Gender Agenda” in May 2018, activists argued that the program did not adequately address their demands. And of course, protests can not last forever; the occupations at the Universidad de Valparaiso in Santiago came to an end in mid-June. And yet, the effects of the protests were perhaps most transformative not for the structures they sought to change, but for the student activists themselves.

By the time spring turned to summer, the protests and occupations across Chile came to a close. Although the stated goal of the movement was to afflict political change, it resulted in social transformation instead. The U.S. movements against sexual violence on campus could learn much from the collective power and communal support demonstrated by the most recent Chilean feminist protests and occupations. If activists applied those lessons on campuses across the U.S., perhaps we would all be a little less afraid.

Media Portrayal of #MeToo (March)

In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.

On January 20, 2019, Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too Movement, stood at the front of Duke Chapel, addressing an audience of student, faculty, and community members as the keynote speaker of Duke’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. Burke originally coined the phrase “me too” in 2006. At its inception Me Too was about healing survivors of sexual violence, with a deliberate focus on “Black women and girls, and other young women of color from low wealth communities”.

tarana burke
photo credit: Mary Helen Wood | The Chronicle

The phrase went viral years later, when American actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a response to this tweet.” Milano’s 2017 tweet came just days after The New York Times broke the story about Harvey Weinstein and the slew of women accusing him of sexual harassment or assault. #MeToo immediately went viral. A study by the Pew Research Center found that #MeToo was used more than 19 million times on Twitter. Allegation after allegation came out against high-profile men including Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, and Louis C.K. Overnight, Tarana Burke found herself at the helm of a global movement. At the end of 2017, Time Magazine named Burke and others Time’s Person of the Year, collectively referred to as “The Silence Breakers.” Burke shares the magazine cover with some of entertainment’s biggest stars, including Milano, Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd.

Last month, the Sanford School of Public Policy hosted an event on Duke’s campus called Organizing Beyond Elections. Many students expressed concern that Hollywood’s extreme visibility in the Me Too movement has shifted the focus away from the broader population of survivors. Many of the women in the entertainment industry who came forward with Me Too stories did so from places of relative privilege; these women are largely white, wealthy women. Centering these stories often comes at the expense of more marginalized voices, such as those of working class survivors and survivors of color.

Media whitewashing of Me Too has consequences beyond that of representation. Media portrayal of sexual violence play a heavy hand in the creation of our conceptions of sexual violence. If our collective imagination believes that sexual violence is an issue that primarily affects white women, or wealthy women, or women of a specific status, our efforts to solve the problem will focus on this limited group of women as well. This problem is replicated across various movements against sexual violence, even at the microcosm of Duke. According to the 2018-2019 Student Experiences Study at Duke University, 48% of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. Those numbers tick sharply upwards for women of color, especially black and Latina women, and LGBTQ+ women. Despite the disproportionate violence experienced by these marginalized populations, much of the university’s initiatives and prevention campaigns over the past several year have focused on organizations, such as IFC fraternities, that are majority white, heteronormative spaces.

The problem, of course, is not with Me Too itself. The Me Too movement has clearly made strides forward, not only in connecting survivors, but in highlighting the magnitude of the problem of sexual violence, especially as it exists in the entertainment industry. However, while speaking at Duke, Burke criticized the media’s incomplete portrayal of what the movement is. “What the media has spoonfed you about what they call a movement is wrong,” Burke said. “This is not a anti-man movement. It’s not a naming and shaming movement. It’s not a Hollywood movement. It’s not even a woman’s movement. It’s a survivor’s movement.”


Professors, internet pundits, and students alike often make reference to the fact that we are now living in a “post Me Too era.” Although everyone can agree that we are certainly living in a time after the Me Too movement, debate rages about what, exactly, that might mean. But for those of us working to eradicate sexual violence at every level, we must actively work to build a movement that is inclusive and representative. We must allow survivors, particularly marginalized survivors, to inform the ways we pursue change. Equity in this movement can not be an afterthought. According to Burke, the path forward is clear. “Me too is not a campaign…it is a movement, because our work is about collectively expanding possibilities for survivors.”

The Uncertain Future of Title IX (February)

For February 2019, the Rights Writers discuss their issues in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion), particularly in light of the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.

In September of 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced she was rescinding Obama-era Title IX guidances, known colloquially as the Dear Colleagues letter. In mid-November of 2018, the Department of Education unveiled their long-awaited proposed rules regarding Title IX. Critique and support of the rules came from all sides. Some legal experts suggested that the rules took great strides in formalizing the hearing process to ensure due process was respected for both parties. Advocates for survivors pointed out the ways in which the new rules might suppress the voices of survivors, such as limiting the number of “mandatory reporters” on campus and excluding off-campus incidents from the Title IX purview. I wrote for Bustle last year about my thoughts on the new rules, informed by my experience serving as an advisor for my friend’s Title IX hearing.


Courtesy of Gage Skidmore on Flickr


To fully understand how Title IX might change, it is essential to understand how it was created. Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

In the years to follow, the nation’s court systems would make several key decisions in expanding the purview of Title IX in order to include sexual violence and sexual harassment as constituting sex discrimination. In a unanimous decision in 1992, the Supreme Court held that Title IX bars sexual harassment and allows victims to recover damages from institutions that violate the statute. Later, in the landmark Davis v Monroe County case, the Supreme Court held that a school could be subject to private lawsuits for sexual harassment of students against students as well, again provided that the school knew of the harassment.

For a full understanding of the requirements of Title IX, schools receiving federal funding turn to guidance materials released by the US Department of Education. In 2011, the Obama administration released the Dear Colleagues letter, reiterating to campus officials their legal responsibilities in upholding Title IX provisions related to sexual violence, and establishing a reduced burden of proof for university sexual misconduct hearings. The Dear Colleagues letter forced university administrators to prioritize the epidemic of sexual violence on campus, at the risk of losing federal funding.

 A national movement of student activists picked up speed by 2012, bolstered by the Dear Colleagues letter as well as the newfound connections forming across various university campuses due to the Internet. Survivors and student activists began to report potential Title IX violations on their various campuses, until over a hundred universities were under investigation. Two of these activists are assault survivors Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, alumnae of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Pino and Clark filed their complaint against UNC in 2013, and became national leaders as sexual assault survivors across the country filed complaints against their own universities. The pair eventually co-wrote a book together, and founded advocacy group End Rape on Campus.



The focus on university sexual violence has shifted considerably after the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Devos made headlines in 2017 when she chose to consult not only with survivors advocates but also men’s rights activists, including the National Coalition for Men. News about Title IX surfaced again when Candice Jackson, the Education Department’s civil rights chief, was forced to apologize for controversial comments she made to the New York Times. In the Times article, Jackson stated that “90 percent [of assault allegations] fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk, 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”. After months of controversy and speculation, Devos’s proposed rules were finally released in November of 2018. Notice and comment for the new rules ended on January 31st. Currently, the rules are under review, with the Department of Education expected to release revised guidance later this year.

Although the new policy will remove pressure on university administrators to comply with Title IX, universities are unlikely to make immediate changes to their existent sexual misconduct policies. Advocates were quick to reiterate the rights of survivors; an excerpt from the Know Your IX web page on Title IX under the Trump Administration reminds students that “Title IX is still the law of the land, which means schools must still promptly and equitably investigate sexual harassment and assault”. The finalized guidelines relating to Title IX under the new administration are expected to come from the Department of Education later this year. Of course, the new Title IX guidelines are as permanent as the administrations they were penned by. There is nothing stopping a potential new Secretary of Education from rewriting the rules yet again two, or four, or ten years down the line. For now, students and college administrators alike must wait for the new rules before beginning to implement changes of any kind. For students across the country, the pursuit of justice following sexual assault hangs in the balance.

#MeToo: At Home and Abroad (January)

For our first month, January 2019, the Rights Writers introduce their topics and give an overview of the main actors and debates.

I was two months into my first semester of college when one of my friends came home from a night out, saying that she had been raped by a man at a fraternity party. Two months later, a friend from high school called me in tears, telling me about how a friend of hers had offered her a ride home from a library, and then pulled the car into an empty parking lot and assaulted her. Every orientation week I sit through a presentation which says 23% of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault, that 40% of undergraduate women on Duke’s campus experience sexual assault by the time they graduate, that women of color, transgender, and gender non-conforming students experience disproportionate rates of sexual violence. These statistics live in my head not as numbers, but as stories—-stories told by nearly every woman I know—-which have piled up throughout my three years as a college student. I am no longer surprised, although I am always angry, when another one of my friends sends me a text saying “Something bad happened”.

courtesy of author

Sexual violence, an umbrella term defined by the World Health Organization as encompassing rape, sexual assault, stalking, and sexual harassment, is undeniably a human rights issue. However, feminist scholars have long criticized the efficacy of the human rights framework in addressing issues of gender-based violence and women’s rights more broadly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is limited in its discourse about the equality of women, limiting our understanding of human rights abuses to acts committed in the public sphere, and thus exonerating those committed by private actors. In response to feminist critique, additional covenants and treaties have been introduced as part of the United Nations human rights canon, so as to more adequately address the specific human rights oppressions of women. The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in particular, has been essential in increasing the scope of the responsibility of the state to protect women from acts of gender-based violence.  The UN now recognizes that states have the responsibility to address rights violations committed by private actors, such as family members, intimate partners, and acquaintances, as opposed to focusing only on violations committed by state actors, such as wartime rape. This new body of legislation builds upon the founding declarations’ guarantee of equality and freedom from discrimination in order to argue that gender-based violence constitutes discrimination against women. Thus, international human rights law now mandates that state governments take steps to appropriately address issues of violence against women when committed by both state and private actors.

pic: By Montanasuffragettes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65691016

            For young women around the world, schools and universities are one of the most common sites of sexual coercion and harassment committed by private actors. In a case of sexual violence in 1991, more than 70 teenage girls were raped by their peers at a school in Meru, Kenya. A survey of Australian Universities in 2016 found that more than half of respondents were sexually harassed in a university setting. These statistics begin to showcase the breadth of the problem of sexual violence around the world, despite the fact that sexual violence remains a neglected area of research. Additionally complicating matters, sexual violence is an extremely underreported crime both to police and on surveys. Although the prevalence of sexual violence can be estimated through these methods, there is a substantial, unquantified prevalence of incidents of sexual violence.

            On November 9, 2015, United States Vice President Joe Biden penned an op-ed titled “It’s On Us to Stop Campus Sexual Assault” for immediate release to college newspapers and online outlets across the country. In the piece, Biden details his initiative It’s On Us, which recognized sexual violence on college campuses as “an epidemic”. Vice President Biden’s initiative followed the nineteen-page Dear Colleagues letter, which was released by President Obama’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, in 2011. The letter reiterated to campus officials their responsibilities in upholding Title IX provisions related to sexual violence and establishing a reduced burden of proof for university sexual misconduct hearings. The Dear Colleagues letter, in conjunction with Vice President Biden’s explicit focus on university sexual violence, made sexual assault a primary focus for nearly every university administrator in the country. The focus on university sexual violence has shifted considerably after the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Most notably, in September of 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced she was rescinding the Dear Colleagues regulations issued under the Obama administration. The Department of Education released their proposed new rules for Title IX late last year, the long-term effects of which still remain to be seen.

            Looking back, perhaps it is unsurprising that I decided to spend a semester away from campus life, choosing instead to study human rights in New York City, Chile, Nepal, and Jordan. In every country I visited, I spoke with women and girls about sexual violence. I wanted to know if they felt comfortable reporting, or talking about the issue with family and friends. I asked about the movements against sexual violence in their countries. I wondered if the #MeToo movement had global repercussions. Throughout the upcoming semester, I plan to address the human rights issue of sexual violence, specifically as it occurs on American college campuses. I hope to use what I learned from women around the world, and their stories of both struggle and strength, to inform my understanding of sexual violence as it impacts the women I am around every day.