[Trigger warning: mention of suicides, sexual violence]
About a year ago, Alexia Garcia ’18 stumbled upon the book “Campus Sex/Campus Security” and chose to read it during lapses in her busy schedule. “I really loved it,” she remembered. “I found myself bringing it into all of my classes.”
With heightened policing on Vassar’s campus, the recent expansion of who is a mandatory reporter and students’ continued frustration with the Title IX process, Garcia and the Feminist Alliance Cooperative decided to bring the book’s author Jennifer Doyle to campus to speak about safety and sexual violence.
On Monday, April 17, Doyle spoke in Rockefeller Hall, surrounded by a group of over 30 eager students and faculty members. Doyle is an English professor at the University of California at Riverside and is also the author of “Hold it Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art” and “Sex Objects: Art and Dialectics of Desire.”
Her most recent work, “Campus Sex/Campus Security,” outlines the complexities that underlie sexual violence, how corporate universities manage Title IX in this neoliberal era and the failure of campuses to both build community and challenge interpersonal violence.
“‘Campus Sex/Campus Security’ is a literary experiment,” Doyle explained in her talk. “It’s theoretical in some ways but there are also ways in which it is really not.”
Doyle was inspired to write the book by a personal experience. While she was teaching at the University of California at Riverside, a student began to stalk and harass her. As the situation escalated, Doyle became increasingly frustrated with the campus police.
“My department and colleagues were really great around it, but the school itself was terrible,” she recalled. “The campus police were really useless, they made everybody, myself and my colleagues, feel…terrified and uneasy.”
She explained that the campus police made her feel like she was part of the problem. “I was struck by the hardening between the harmful ways in which the system was behaving around my own case in the name of protecting me: an escalation of my fear and sense of threat, an increase of the securitization of my workplace and the presentation of me as a kind of security problem.”
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helped Doyle change her perspective on her situation. Their therapeutic, behavior-modification approach treated stalking and harassment as a process rather than an eventbased crime. They believed that a person should go to jail only if preventative methods failed to change their behavior. The LAPD did not want a prison sentence to ruin the life of the individual harassing Doyle if it did not have to.
Doyle did not see this same type of empathy from individuals policing college campuses. She further noticed that security consistently singled out people of color. To highlight this problem, she told the story of the “pepper-spray cop,” which always underscored issues with how schools view the Title IX process.
In 2011, University of California at Davis (commonly known as UC Davis) students were peacefully demonstrating during an Occupy movement and were prepared to spend the night on the campus quad. When the police came to remove them, the students refused to leave. After asking the students to go several times, an officer doused them with pepper spray. A video of the incident instantly went viral and the “pepper-spray cop” became a popular internet meme.
In defense of the incident, the UC Davis college chancellor said that the students had to leave because it was unsafe for them to spend the night outside. She claimed that older men from Oakland had been spotted drinking in the area and could potentially harm the students. The chancellor expressed, in so many words, that if something had happened, the students could have filed a Title IX complaint and damaged the school’s reputation.
While this concern was inherently problematic, Doyle explained that it also “evoked the myth of the black rapist” since Oakland is a predominantly African-American city. She remarked, “There was his explicit entanglement of perceived sexual vulnerability and a racialized threat outside of campus.”
Doyle wanted to capture the threat she and POC had faced in a book. “I was living inside a problem and wanted to try and write it,” she said. “‘Campus Sex/Campus Security’ was a way of sharing out how it felt to be living and working inside in that kind of crisis, one of which was personalized…one of which was systematic, one of which was sexualized and one of which was racialized.”
Doyle decided to share an excerpt from her book at her talk to communicate the complexity of campus harassment cases. The excerpt that she read detailed the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who took his own life in 2010 after his roommate secretly taped him having sex. Doyle explained that Clementi’s story highlights the pain of losing privacy.
Her book reads, “For people not used to living under a sense of surveillance, finding oneself stripped of a privacy is profoundly disturbing. The experience of exposure doubles on itself. One comes to grips with how much a sense of privacy does to maintain a specific kind of selfhood.”
Izzy Braham ’20 of the Feminist Alliance appreciated Doyle’s words. “Invasiveness was the back of [Doyle’s writing],” she commented. “Policing and protesting are very personal things and schools approach them in very invasive ways. But where is the empathy? It seems like schools just worry [about] managing events instead of helping students. Doyle addressed this problem in her book.”
Doyle also addressed the issue of mandatory reporters, a particularly relevant topic given Vassar’s recent decisions to increase the number of mandatory reporters on campus and to shut down a student-run hotline operated by the organization CARES because it was considered a liability problem.
“Mandatory reporting stuff is so challenging,” Doyle said. “It gives faculty and administration a means to hand off that worry to someone else who they think might have better training. That’s a mixed bag.”
Doyle recommended that students read their school’s mandatory reporting policies so that they understand what they are up against. She said that student unions are excellent ways to protest policies that are not fulfilling students’ needs.
Finally, she added that peer-to-peer counseling is an option for students who wish to speak to someone who is not a mandatory reporter. Students, she said, must be there for one another.
As for Title IX, Doyle explained that it only exists as far as people file complaints. “[Title IX is] very simple [in] it’s initial language,” she said. “The place where it becomes interesting from a feminist perspective and an LGBTQ-perspective is where people make that connection between sex based discrimination and sexual violence. Where there is a recognition that sexual assault is a sex-based form of violence.”
She encouraged students to use Title IX to hold the members of their communities accountable for the ways in which they treat each other.
“Media discourse about Title IX often involves a kind of shaming of students as a bunch of ‘special snowflakes’ and hysterics,” she said. “Instead, [filing Title IX complaints] is an intense form of activism that is demanding and requires a lot of work.”
Garcia hopes that Doyle’s message about Title IX will resonate with Vassar students. “I hope that students see that they must continue to insist on reforming the Title IX process,” she said. “There is something that people can get out of it.”
Going forward, the Feminist Alliance plans to continue the conversations that Doyle started with her talk and work toward affecting positive change.
Garcia commented, “We are going to start to rethink education during freshmen orientation and get students to consider what community responses to these incidents should look like.”
“We have a meeting scheduled with the Title IX office,” Braham added. “We will also continue to bring relevant speakers to campus and work with other student organizations like CARES to fix the smaller things that we see as problems.”