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GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE IN UNIVERSITIES AND RESEARCH
NATIONAL FIELDWORK REPORT
Country: United States
Researcher: Paloma Caravantes-Gonzalez
Prevalence, with an emphasis on reporting and using tools such as campus climate surveys, is
a fundamental element of the conversations about gender-based violence in universities and
research organizations in the United States. The three pieces of federal legislation that address
different forms of gender-based violence in colleges and universities across the country—Title
IX, the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act—focus on monitoring and reporting mechanisms.
The Campus SaVE Act also mandates primary prevention and awareness programs, while Title
IX and the Clery Act recommend colleges and universities to offer information and prevention
programs in their campuses.
As mandated by the three pieces of federal legislation, the conversations on protection and
provision of services revolve around the duty of institutions of higher education (IHEs) to
remedy any hostile environment caused by incidences of sexual violence; and to provide
information for students filing a complaint on services such as housing, transportation,
academic accommodations, counselling, and legal assistance. The role of colleges and
universities regarding prosecution is often framed in relation to the investigation of allegations
and the mandate to notify victims about their rights to report incidents of violence to law
enforcement, as mandated by Title IX; and the obligation for disciplinary proceedings to be
conducted by trained parties at the institution, as mandated by the Clery Act. In recent years,
the disputes between Obama and Trump administrations around the issue of due process and
the balance of the rights of the accused to those of the victim have centred conversations about
The academic literature has explored the limitations of existing legal provisions and their
contested nature. The fact that federal legislation relies on victims’ reports might negatively
affect the monitoring process because of the potential mistrust towards formal institutions
(Richards & Kafonek, 2016). Informal reporting platforms, such as those enabled by the MeToo
movement, could facilitate the monitoring of sexual violence in IHEs (Binkley, 2018). While many
documents regard partnership with off-campus organizations and local law enforcement as
crucial (White House Task Force, 2014a), the conversations on gender-based violence in IHEs
are usually limited to on-campus and related spaces. The centrality of the campus for the
university experience in the United States—as a living, working, and socializing space—is
fundamental to understand this limitation. While the policies that address gender-based violence
on universities and colleges are relatively stable, the guidelines and supporting documents that
help defining these legislative frameworks have been largely contested in the last decade,
especially those related to Title IX, the latest regulation of which is currently under review (U.S.
Department of Education, 2020a, 2021).
2. MAPPING OF POLICIES AND LEGAL FRAMEWORKS
Laws, policies, and strategies
There are three pieces of federal legislation that determine mechanisms to measure and address
different forms of gender-based violence on colleges and universities in the United States: Title
IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Jeanne Clery Act of 1990, and the Campus SaVE
Act of 2013.
As an educational amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX prohibits discrimination
on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault,
sexual battery, and sexual coercion; as well as other forms of gender discrimination such as
gender harassment, sexism, and sexist stereotyping. Title IX requires schools that receive
federal assistance to take necessary steps to prevent these forms of discrimination on their
campuses, and to respond promptly and effectively when instances of sexual violence are
reported. The most recent regulation of Title IX in 2020 broadened the scope of covered actions
to include dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking (U.S. Department of Education,
2020a). The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is the administrative
enforcer of Title IX. The OCR may initiate an investigation proactively or in response to a formal
complaint. If a school is found under a Title IX violation, it risks losing federal funds, but OCR
must first pursue a voluntary resolution process before terminating funds, allowing schools to
take a series of steps to remedy the problem on their campuses. The Department of Justice
(DOJ) shares authority with the OCR in the enforcement of Title IX and can “bring all facets of a
school, including its campus police, and local police departments into compliance with the law”
(White House Task Force, 2014a: 17).
The Clery Act (Jeanne Clery Act, 2008) requires colleges and universities that receive federal
financial aid—including student financial aid programs which covers virtually every campus in
the United States—to publish Annual Security Reports (ASRs) on crime on-campus or near
campus. These include sexual assault (rape, fondling, incest, and statutory rape) under the
category of criminal offenses; and domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking under the
category of Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) offenses. ASRs are
the only consistent source of institution-specific information, however, they have been found to
undercount incidents of sexual misconduct (Richards, 2019b). ASRs only include incidents
reported to campus security authorities and within the “Clery Geography”, which excludes off-
campus locations. Besides, the ASR “provides no information regarding the investigation,
campus disciplinary or criminal justice system processing, or outcome of an individual incident
included in the report” (Richards & Kafonek, 2016: 96). The Clery Act also requires IHEs to
develop and disseminate prevention policies. The Department of Education’s Federal Student
Aid (FSA) office is responsible for enforcing the Clery Act. The FSA can conduct on-site reviews
to ensure compliance and impose fines if a school is found to have violated Clery Act provisions
(U.S. Department of Education, 2020b).
The Campus SaVE Act is a provision added to the 2013 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
Reauthorization (Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, 2013), which also applies to all
colleges and universities, both public and private, that receive any federal funding. The Campus
SaVE Act amended the Clery Act introducing new aspects such as the requirements for colleges
and universities to a) report information on other types of gender-based violence beyond sexual
violence, such as domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking; b) adopt student disciplinary
procedures such as providing victims information about their rights and their choice to decline
help from law enforcement; c) provide primary prevention programs on GBV and adopt
institutional policies to address and prevent campus sexual violence, such as training the
institutional personnel (American Council on Education, 2014). The latter requirement not only
amended the Clery Act but also the latest guidance of Title IX, which only recommended
prevention programming (U.S. Department of Education, 2001, 2011). The 2013 Campus SaVE
Act, instead, mandates IHEs to provide “ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns”
regarding gender-based violence (Richards, 2019a: 2003), shifting the paradigm from reactive
monitoring and enforcement to a more preventing approach (Kafonek & Richards, 2017).
Different administrations have issued specific guidance to interpret Title IX since 1997 (U.S.
Department of Education, 1997, 2001, 2011, 2014, 2015a, 2015b, 2017a, 2017b, 2020a, 2021).
Obama administration published a series of guiding documents, including the 2011 “Dear
Colleague Letter” and the 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence” (U.S.
Department of Education, 2011, 2014, 2015a, 2015b). Among other concrete regulations, the
2011 Dear Colleague Letter instructed schools to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard
rather than the “clear and convincing evidence” standard to determine whether an incident of
sexual harassment of assault occurred (Shingleton, 2018). Obama administration also formed a
White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in 2014. Former Vice-President
Joe Biden co-chaired the task force, which issued two reports and two guides for university and
college administrators (White House Task Force, 2014a, 2014b, 2017a, 2017b).
In 2017, the Department of Education under Trump administration withdrew the 2011 Dear
Colleague Letter and 2014 guidance and reinstated the 2006 Dear Colleague Letter and 2001
guidance. The publication of a “Questions and Answers” document in 2017 (U.S. Department of
Education, 2017b) centred the conversation around due process in prosecution and the balance
of the rights of the accused to those of the victim. The Department of Education under Trump
administration considered that the 2011 and 2014 documents "created a system that lacked
basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness" (U.S. Department of
Education, 2017a). The most controversial elements of the 2017 changes in federal Title IX rules
include the mandate for universities to permit live hearings and cross-examination of witnesses
during sexual misconduct hearings, which might discourage survivors coming forward (U.S.
Department of Education, 2017b).
In 2020, the Department of Education issued new regulations (U.S. Department of Education,
2020a). The 2020 Final Rule excludes sexual misconduct that occurs outside campus-controlled
buildings and/or educational activities; permits cross-examination by a representative of each
party and in unregulated mediation; extends the timeframe for investigations, which no longer
have to be completed in 60 days; narrows the scope of unwelcome conduct to “severe,
pervasive and objectively offensive” (one of these characteristics alone no longer suffices);
allows religiously-affiliated schools to claim a Title IX exemption; and limits the possibility to file
a complaint to those attending the university (Marston, 2020). The 2020 new provisions of Title
IX, thus, allow informal resolutions and schools to choose between “preponderance standard”
and “clear and convincing evidence” standard (Gersen, 2020). In April 2021, the Department of
Education under Biden administration announced a comprehensive review of the existing
regulations and other actions related to Title IX (U.S. Department of Education, 2021).
Other relevant activities to combat GBV in universities and research organisations
Apart from the legal provisions and mechanisms detailed above, other best practices and
instruments are often discussed to combat gender-based violence at universities and research
organizations in the United States. The use of anonymous campus climate surveys is central to
these conversations. Campus climate surveys measure the prevalence of sexual violence and
harassment on college campuses and assess students’ attitudes and behaviours regarding
different forms of gender-based violence. In 2014, the White House urged colleges to conduct
these surveys and developed a prototype survey to provide individual campuses with a tool to
have specific data on their communities (Krebs et al., 2016).
One of the main Research Funding Organizations (RFOs) in the United States, the National
Science Foundation (NSF), has also prompted the conversation on sexual harassment and
assault in IHEs. Through the 2018 award term and condition “Notification Requirements
Regarding Sexual Harassment, Other Forms of Harassment, or Sexual Assault”, NSF requires
awardee organizations to report findings and determinations of sexual harassment (National
Science Foundation, 2021). In consultation with the awardee organization, NSF actions against
violations of this mechanism may include substituting or removing principal investigators or
reducing award funding.
Best practices, such as the Red Flag campaign and the Green Dot program, are also central to
the conversation in the United States. The Red Flag campaign promotes bystander intervention
to address and prevent sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking on college campuses
Created by college students, personnel, and victim advocates of the Virginia Sexual and
Domestic Violence Alliance, this campaign reflects the growing reliance on bystander
intervention as a vehicle to make the community participant in combating sexual violence. The
Green Dot program is a comprehensive strategy of primary prevention starting from early stages
of the education system.
. This program seeks to change social and cultural norms, emphasizing
training in proactive rather than reactive behaviours to potential violence.
Impact of policies on RPOs.
In 2015, a majority of IHEs had a Title IX policy against sex discrimination (95%), however, only
60% of the institutions included a sexual misconduct policy in their student handbook (Richards,
2019a). Although more than one third of the IHEs sampled in a recent study did not have a Title
IX coordinator—the person responsible for coordinating an institution’s policies, interventions,
and data collection efforts regarding sexual violence—, the majority of IHEs offered information
about students’ rights to notify law enforcement and two thirds of the institutions provided ways
for confidential and/or anonymous reporting (Richards 2019a). More than two thirds of IHEs
had a specific policy regarding sexual violence, which is consistent with recommendations of
the White House Task Force (2014a) and comply with directives of the SaVE Act (Richards,
An exploratory study of at least four-year degree IHEs in the United States found that 86%
reported offering prevention programs, with the majority including sexual assault per the Clery
Act but fewer programs targeting dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking as mandated
by the Campus SaVE Act (Kafonek and Richards, 2017). The intersectional perspective is almost
absent in prevention programming, as the unique risks and needs of minority students are not
targeted (Kafonek and Richards, 2017). Whereas the existing legislation does not refer to cultural
and organizational transformation as key strategies to address gender-based violence, the White
House Task Force (2014b) stressed the importance of implementing a socio-ecological model
to consider the role of multiple levels, including individual, relationships, community, and cultural
and social contexts, in the reproduction of sexual violence.
3. DEBATES REGARDING #METOO AND THE ISTANBUL CONVENTION
The #MeToo movement has been discussed in media specialized in higher education as well as
mainstream media as an opportunity to bring momentum to conversations that were already
present in college campuses. The movement potentially inspires an environment of reporting
sexual misconduct through informal channels, given the otherwise generalized mistrust towards
university administrators (Binkley, 2018). The perceived risks of the movement refer to the
circulation of lists signalling those who have been publicly accused of sexual assault and
potentially generating a hostile environment, which is prohibited under Title IX (Bauer-Wolf,
United States was involved in elaborating the Istanbul Convention but has not signed it. The
Istanbul Convention is not relevant to public and political conversations in the country, and media
coverage often refers to the convention as an issue affecting foreign countries (White House,
2021). In academic conversations, the integrated approach of the Istanbul Convention across
EU member nations has been compared to the federal scope of the Violence Against Women
Act (VAWA) in the United States (Columbus School of Law, 2021).
4. PUBLIC OPINION ON GBV
According to a 2017 survey of the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans perceive that
reports of sexual harassment and assault (referring to those against high-profile men in the
entertainment industry and politics during 2017) reflect widespread problems in society rather
than acts of individual misconduct, and 74% of the US public consider that this issue is “very
important” for the country (Oliphant, 2017). Women and Democrats are more likely than men
and Republicans to see sexual harassment as a widespread problem in society (71% and 70%
vs. 60% and 61%, respectively), and women college graduates see allegations of sexual
misconduct as a societal problem in greater percentage, 86% (Oliphant, 2017).
According to a 2018 WGBH News/Abt Associates poll, 54% of Americans don’t think colleges do
a good job protecting their students from sexual assault (Ciemnecki, 2018). According to a 2018
Pew Research Center survey about the workplace during the era of #MeToo (Graf, 2018),
Americans are more concerned about men getting away with sexual harassment (50%) and
women not being believed (46%) than men being fired prematurely (34%) or women falsely
claiming sexual assault or harassment (31%). Yet, 51% of the respondents say that the increased
attention to sexual harassment and assault makes it harder for men to interact with women in
the workplace, and 51% say that this increased attention will not make much difference for
women’s opportunities at the workplace (Graf, 2018).
5. IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON DISCUSSIONS ABOUT GBV
The conversations about GBV during the pandemic have focused on the prevalence and the
adoption or continuation of protective measures under current conditions, especially with the
closure of college campuses. The main concern is on the unique impacts of COVID-19 on
survivors of violence—particularly college students who are back to isolating or abusive home
situations—as well as situations of extreme social isolation, reduced mobility, stress and
processes of re-traumatization (Bennett et al., 2021, Marston, 2020). The removal from the
campus affects the healing process of some students, preventing them from accessing the
counselling they used to receive on campus (Marston, 2020). Furthermore, students are more
vulnerable to sexual violence online and the racial and economic disparities in the access to
technology might disproportionally impact minority students, which can compound in cases of
abusers’ control of victims’ access to technology (Bennett et al., 2021).
Members of the National Academies' Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in
Higher Education recommend not to postpone campus climate surveys during the pandemic
(Holland et al., 2020). Because the new conditions of distance learning might continue for a
prolonged period, prevalence studies need to gather information on how sexual harassment
manifests in virtual environments and the potentially increasing hostility in home-based work
and school spaces. Further, conducting these surveys during pandemic times reinforces the
academic community’s perception that students’ well-being matters (Holland et al., 2020). The
literature also stresses the importance of prevention during pandemic times, including
redesigning educational tools and community-building activities for digital platforms, as well as
raising awareness on technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV) and maintaining constant
communication with the student population (Bennett et al., 2021).
The instruments that measure the prevalence of sexual and gender violence in US colleges and
universities are relatively stable and consolidated. They could benefit from expanding the focus
beyond college campuses, as well as facilitating the protocols of reporting, a path initiated by
the campus climate surveys. Moving forward, the efforts should focus on prevention programs
to target organizational and cultural transformation, as well as mechanisms to identify and
address less explored forms of online violence and harassment. The broad nature of some
pieces of legislation, especially Title IX, generates opportunities and obstacles. It facilitates
institution-specific interpretation and creative design of best practices while enables political
contestation that hinders the creation of standardized and continuous instruments of
implementation for colleges and universities, as exemplified by current debates on prosecution
and protection measures.
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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and
innovation programme under grant agreement No 101006261.
The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Institute of Sociology of the
Czech Academy of Sciences and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European