This Is What We Learned

Content Warning: Sexual Assault and Child Sexual Assault

Photo by  Joshua Eckstein  on  Unsplash    [Image Description: a row of Crayola crayons stand upright in chromatic order in the foreground]

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

[Image Description: a row of Crayola crayons stand upright in chromatic order in the foreground]

The Friday before Thanksgiving 2018, Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education quietly released new guidelines for Title IX sexual assault investigations, effectively rolling back guidelines enacted by her predecessor during the Obama administration. These changes are ostensibly meant to support the main goal of Title IX: to prevent sex and gender-based discrimination from infringing on the ability of all students to learn and thrive in public schools. The new guidelines boil down to three main changes: establishing a narrower definition of sexual misconduct, removing certain protections for the accusing party, and relaxing some requirements placed on educational institutions.

Under the new restricted definition, the conduct must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to qualify as sexual misconduct. An administrator need only follow through with an investigation if the allegation satisfies these criteria. Additionally, the new proposal will only require institutions to investigate incidents that occur within campus-sanctioned events or activities.

Reading through the new guidelines, I consider these changes in the context of my own experiences, my own body. I hold them up to certain events I witnessed through my own education and examine if they would fit. Nearly all my experiences that I would label Title IX violations, the new guidelines would not consider them as such under the constricted parameters. Consequentially examining these memories, I question my own judgment, what I’ve experienced and witnessed, my reactions, my silence. I question if these things truly infringed on students’ ability to learn. I questioned the validity of my own beliefs and memories.

I question myself like society questions victims of sexual assault.

Because this is what we learned.

Isn’t school where we first learn the state of affairs that govern our bodies, communicated and reinforced by teachers, administrators, and other adults? As early as preschool, if not sooner, adults start imposing sexuality on children, joking about Emily and Johnny falling in love. In elementary school, parents and teachers laugh at the “innocent” recess flirtation when Chris kissed Jenny and Jenny got mad. In middle school, administrators wave off young boys’ inappropriate behaviors; boys will by boys.

When I was in 6th grade, Brent Oswald kept kicking me in math class and shoving me on the playground. I wasn’t a stranger to bullying, but normally the bullies were girls armed with verbal attacks. I didn’t know how to ignore someone regularly kicking my shins during class and it was becoming difficult to focus. I asked the teacher for help. “Oh he probably just has a crush on you,” she told me. “It’s a compliment!” When I pressed more, I got a new assigned seat away from Brent and hid in the library during recess.

At the end of 6th grade, we had a school dance celebrating our graduation to middle school. As the last slow song played, Brent came up and asked me to dance. We hadn’t spoken in months. Brent looked at me expectantly, his shiny green tie loosened, lying slack around his neck. As *NSYNC’s “Little More Time on You" played over the loudspeakers, all I could say was “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I want to dance with you,” he replied.

“You spent half the year kicking me.”

“Because I like you,” Brent admitted.

Incredulous, I asked, “Why would you kick someone you like?”

Brent paused. As he searched for an answer, his hands rustled in his pockets like the right response might be hiding inside. Finding none, he said finally, “I dunno.” The song was almost halfway over and his window of opportunity was closing.

“Well I think that’s dumb,” I replied. With that I turned and walked away. It would be an admirable power move if it weren’t for the fact that I spent the next year or so wondering if I did the wrong thing.

Before we were old enough to question it, Brent and I learned males are entitled to female bodies and the female body is a commodity for men to possess. We learned our superiors are entitled to our bodies and they may control our bodies. With Brent kicking my shins, I learned my body was not my own. With my teacher’s hand-waving I learned I should accept when a man tried to possess my body. Brent learned that, as a male, he could demand access to the female body. I learned that I owed men my body.

In classrooms, teachers told us to “sit like ladies” and scolded tomboys who rough housed with the boys.  In hallways, administrators enforced school dress codes that focus almost exclusively on girls’ clothing. A student could be disciplined if her sleeveless shirt had straps narrower than two fingers or be asked to prove that a skirt was long enough by kneeling on the ground. They taught us that we weren’t in control of our bodies.

In my second week of eighth grade, we learned that a beloved gym teacher and coach at our all-girls school had impregnated a 12-year-old girl in our class. He groomed her for this over many years, culminating in having sex for at least a year. My classmate carried the pregnancy to term. The baby was adopted by the girl’s aunt and uncle and raised as his own mother’s cousin.

The gym teacher was charged with six counts each of rape and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He pled guilty to four counts of rape and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He appealed the sentencing as “unduly harsh.” In a separate hearing, the judge ruled that this man – a man who had at least a yearlong sexual relationship with a girl he had groomed from age 9 – was not a sexual predator, because it was one girl, rather than a pattern of girls. He was released August 2018, just prior to his child’s 16th birthday.

In researching this piece, I learned that a couple years earlier, a civil suit was filed against the school alleging a relationship between the same man and a 15 year-old student. The suit alleged that when the family first raised the issue with the school, the school administrators worked “to portray (the girl) and her parents as the problem, rather than the coach; and to foreclose further controversy, by any means necessary.” The suit never went to trial though; the family dropped it for the emotional wellbeing of the child. The man retained his job at the all-girls school. A year later, a 12 year-old girl was pregnant.

When I think back to these events, I’m disturbed to remember my own reactions. I was not shocked to hear that a grown man was having sex regularly with a 12 year-old. I was not appalled to learn that a trusted adult had impregnated a girl my own age. I was not scared or concerned that a student had a sexual relationship with a teacher. I was surprised the girl had been able to hide the pregnancy from everyone for so long; she was a very slender child. I had yet to learn about adults’ deft ability to ignore reality. I was shocked that she would actually carry the baby to term. I couldn’t believe her hips would be large enough to deliver a baby. I was jealous that she had gotten her period; mine had yet to arrive. Everything else made sense. I didn’t realize how unusual, how corrupted this entire situation was until I was much older.

None of the adults paid any attention until the girl missed school. Some even worked to protect the man. This teacher at an elite, private school had been defended at the expense of a 15 year-old girl and only dismissed when the incontrovertible evidence of a pregnant child appeared. Even then, the adults shamed and blamed the girl. The students at this all-girls school were subtly encouraged to believe that this was her fault and not the fault of the teacher, the grown man. We were covertly urged to consider her a “woman of loose morals,” that this child was a “slut.”

Certainly, this was “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as the new Title IX guidelines stipulate but it was not part of a school sanctioned event or activity. It must have infringed on the girl’s ability to learn, maybe some peers, but the events took place off campus. By Secretary DeVos’s criteria, this situation could elude any Title IX investigation.

Years after the gym teacher scandal faded, a different teacher at the same school had a sexual relationship. This time the student was 18 years old and in high school.  My initial reaction was not to question the teacher’s actions, but the girl’s. I remember thinking “But he’s so gross.” I wondered if it was motivated by grades as I would have liked that option; his class was difficult.

When I was in high school, there were certain male teachers that we just assumed had inappropriate relationships with students. Why was this our assumption? Was it what we saw in media? News reports of romance between teacher and student like Mary Kay Letourneau. Films like Kirsten Dunst’s Election or American Beauty showing Kevin Spacey lusting over Mena Suvari. Was it the way the men acted? Were our assumptions based on fact or at least a kernel of truth? Why we were so confident in the affairs of these men and why we were not more disturbed these men would be attracted to the bodies of minors, the bodies of their students?

From middle school through college, I encountered teachers who were known “creeps.” Before we entered their classrooms, we knew to always make sure our cleavage was covered, (unless we thought it might help). It was seen as so commonplace and accepted that today I can’t even remember which teachers these were. Just that they were always men (we all knew which ones), and we knew to try to protect ourselves around them.

This happened on school property, during a school-sanctioned activity, but was it “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive”? How could we have proved it? Did it impact our ability to learn? It’s hard to say. We had felt the male gaze at least since our girls’ bodies started to become women’s bodies.

By the time I got to college, it seemed totally normal for the male educators to have reputations as predators. Rob, the director of my undergraduate program, a middle-aged, white man was one of those men.

When I interviewed for the program, I was 17 years old and in my spring semester of my senior year of high school. Rob invited me to a cast party after I attended a performance at the school. He gave me all the beer I wanted at the party. Later Rob offered me weed, which I turned down. I panicked for days that by rejecting the weed I had offended him and put my chances for admission into jeopardy.

My sister, who had gone through the same program before me, counseled me about Rob and his reputation before I moved to campus. Someone else had warned her; I suspect so long as males have felt entitled to female’s bodies, women have had these whisper networks, quietly warning each other of the men who cannot be trusted, of the men who will try to control the bodies and lives of women. My sister warned me to stay on his good side, but never get too close. She told me he wasn’t someone I wanted as an enemy, but I also didn’t want to be among his acolytes. Rob had a pattern of picking a special student, typically a handsome young man who he would mentor. We all knew about this ‘mentorship’ but there was no real proof of anything beyond a very close relationship; only suspicion and rumor. The rest of the students watched this mentorship and its curious, impenetrable intimacy with a mixture of relief and jealousy.

More than once, Rob was formally accused of carrying on affairs with students. He would get a stern administrative talking-to and continue with his ways. While I was a student of his, Rob wrote a play about the accusations, a thinly veiled dramatization whose script practically confessed to the affairs. I was invited to a private reading of the play during its development, along with other attendees who were mainly his acolytes. The special student of my class read the role of his fictionalized self. As we sat on patio furniture, arranged in a circle, we read the love story of these men for over two hours. As I listened, fidgeting in my chair as I emptied bottles of Shiner Bock to dull the metallic taste of anxiety in my mouth. I was grasping desperately trying to find some feedback that wasn’t “Why did you write a play about your relationship with Brian?” I was in awe of the boldness, or blindness, that empowered him to pen this play for public consumption.

Everything happened outside of school-sanctioned events, behind closed doors. Only Ryan had any solid claim at “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” but he was “consenting,” as much as a student can consent to such activities with a professor despite the inherent power differences. It’s safe to presume these events may have impacted students’ ability to learn, but it’s hard to argue or prove.

Halfway through my degree, I transferred to a different school. My department head was Doc, another white man known to openly favor his male students. A not-so-secret open secret as it was known throughout the department. It wasn’t a rumored bias, but a quantifiable one. Once, a friend and I had the exact same grade in Doc’s class, point for point. Yet my friend got an A on his report card and I got a B+. When I mentioned it to other women in the program, they all confirmed that this was a regular occurrence. With a shrug, one said, “What can you do? You need him. You need his signature to graduate and for every scholarship. He’s the one who writes the recommendations and makes professional connections.” I was furious with the injustice of it, incensed with the continuance of misogyny in these “modern” times. And yet I knew there was nothing I could do about it. My classmate was right, I needed him and if I gave him reason to dislike me, I also gave him reason to impede my success.

Another open secret was that male students were invited to Doc’s off campus house, where he plied boys not yet of age with alcohol and party drugs. Doc was open with his affection for wrestling in its many forms and consequently had a “wrestling room” in the attic of his home. Once sufficiently intoxicated, Doc guided the young men upstairs to the wrestling room for activities that went beyond those of Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker; there were rumors Doc would maneuver these boys into sexual situations. It was understood they would not normally engage in these activities with another man, or with anyone at all.

Doc is no longer in charge of the department. Whispers say it’s due to these off-campus activities. Yet he still teaches every semester. He’s tenured, so the administration could remove him as director of the department but not as professor. Doc can’t be charged with any criminal wrongdoing; these boys willingly went to his home and drank his alcohol. In their shoes, I’m not sure I would have been able to say no, to put up a fight. In fact, I’m quite sure I would not have been able to say no, not to such a powerful man. Now he is a man who could wreak havoc on my career and professional clout, then he had the power to crush any progress or success entirely. I still interact with this man. He wrote me recommendations for grad school, in the midst of #MeToo. Like my classmate said, “What can you do?”

As I graduated and went on to grad school, a third theatre program also run by an older white gay man, Frank, I assumed he would be a predator as well. I agonized about attending the first off campus party held at Frank’s house. Should I avoid it? Will I risk more by attending or not attending? Are one-on-one off campus meetings safe? It wasn’t until after I left that program I realized Frank had never done anything even slightly untoward to me or to any of my peers. I was so conditioned to expect the men in charge to act inappropriately that it took months to realize that for once the man in charge had done nothing wrong.

When I later chose a new graduate program, I ultimately had the choice of two quite disparate programs. One was a fully funded program chaired by a white man. The program as a whole had near gender parity among professors. However, I would spend the majority of my time with three male professors, one of whom was on leave at the time due to a Title IX investigation into sexual misconduct. The other program was partially funded and out of ten professors and staff, only three were men and only one was a white man. I would spend the bulk of my time with female professors. I ultimately decided to spend thousand of dollars I don’t have, to attend a program led largely by women than risk another inappropriate white man in power.

I have reached a point in my life where I so thoroughly distrust men in power that I made the decision to take on extra student loans to avoid answering to a man in power. Because frankly, I’m exhausted. Living in a female body is exhausting. Surviving in this male-dominated society is exhausting. Fighting for respect and basic bodily autonomy is exhausting. And I expect life with males will always feel shattering, demoralizing, and exhausting.

This is what we learned.

Théodore Fahey Pavlich is a writer and theatre artist dedicated to the craft of storytelling, inspired by the power of stories to fuel cultural unity and growth. Théo is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at St. Mary's College of California where they are the 2018-20 Lambda Literary Fellow.