You don’t know me. But if you are confirmed tomorrow, you will represent me — one of the 1 in 5 women that is raped in college. I have told my story on the front page of the The Huffington Post, at The White House, to Joe Biden, and to peers and strangers alike that reach out to me online because they feel alone after they, too, experience rape on campus. Today, I’m telling my story to you.
I haven’t always felt that I had the space or safety to tell my story and stand up for survivors. However, I was lucky enough to attend college under a government administration that fought for survivors of sexual assault.
It was only because committed government leaders believed that it was important to uphold Title IX and address campus sexual violence that I was able to overcome what happened to me.
You see, I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on to finish my degree when I had to walk the same halls as my rapist. But thanks to the inspiration of the It's On Us campaign, and improved Title IX procedures through the Department of Education, went on to receive justice through campus Title IX procedures, graduate college, be named a White House Champion of Change, and continue to fight for change as a Regional Advisor for the It’s On Us Student Advisory Committee.
Ms. DeVos, certainly my education, if not my life, was saved by committed leaders standing up and fighting for the rights of survivors of sexual assault. So today I am writing you to ask, that if confirmed, you do the same.
Because if survivors do not feel their government is fighting for them, they won’t speak up. I almost didn’t.
Before the It’s On Us campaign, when I was a sophomore in college, a woman on my campus reported her sexual assault. I knew about the report not because I knew the survivor, but because on the anonymous platform Yik Yak, people were dragging this woman — a victim of a heinous crime — and her name through the mud. As I scrolled through Yik Yak and watched an innocent victim be demeaned for standing up for justice, I thought to myself, “If I were ever sexually assaulted, I don’t think I would speak up. I wouldn’t want this to happen to me.”
Then six months later, I was raped by an acquaintance at an off-campus party. The same silencing shame I felt for that woman debilitated me after my own assault.
On campuses around the nation, a culture of silencing and shaming survivors of sexual assault allowed sexual violence to be swept under the rug and continue to go on, unaddressed. What created this culture was neutrality and silence from power structures, like university leadership, campus movers and shakers, and, yes, the U.S. Dept. of Education. Not only did society silence survivors, but it left them without advocates.
That changed in 2014, as the The Obama White House and Department of Education stood up for the sanctity of Title IX. Our government committed to investigate schools — including mine — that did not fulfill their duty to ensure, through Title IX processes and protections, that survivors of sexual violence had equal access to their education.
As they did this, something incredible happened — hundreds of thousands of survivors started coming out of the woodwork. To stand up and say, “It happened to me, too.” “It happened here.” And most of all, “It can’t happen again.”
This wave across the country was empowered and emboldened by a government administration that would listen to and believe survivors. I am quite certain that without such a display of commitment from our government, I too would have stayed silent.
Instead, I felt safe and empowered to speak out. So I wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post about my experience as a rape survivor, and what my story could teach college campuses about the need for affirmative consent definitions. The article was published on the front page and instantly went viral. Afterwards, literally thousands of people reached out to me and said that reading my story made them feel less alone. A crying woman came to me and even said it saved her life.
Creating space in society for survivors to be open and honest about their experience isn’t just important because it’s respectful.
Rather, knowing that government is on the side of survivors of sexual violence is the only way to ensure that survivors will continue to speak to truth to power.
We need government leaders to stand up, so that survivors can also stand up for equal access to a quality education — a civil right that you, as Secretary of Education, would be bound by law to uphold and defend.
More than 400,000 people have signed the It's On Us pledge and committed to taking a stand against sexual violence. We know that it’s on us, and we uphold our end of the bargain every day as we organize on college campuses across the country.
So, Ms. DeVos — what will you commit to do?
On behalf of survivors everywhere, I ask of you — sign the It’s On Us pledge. But do more than just pledge. If you are confirmed tomorrow, I will be counting on you to protect both my education and my voice, by committing to upholding Title IX and Dear Colleague guidance.
1 in every 5 college women, 1 in every 16 college men, and future generations of students that deserve an education without violence are all depending on you.
Betsy DeVos, it’s on us — and today especially, it’s on YOU, too.
Jess Davidson is a recent graduate of the University of Denver and a consent education advocate. She was Student Body VP at DU, and named a White House It's On Us Champion of Change for her work to prevent sexual violence and change policy. She was an intern at the Obama White House and advises the It's On Us Student Advisory Committee.