Today’s guest columnist is author and civil rights attorney Alexandra Brodsky.
This month, the federal civil rights statute Title IX turns 50. For much of its history, critics have painted the law, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, as a threat to male students—and especially college athletes. During Title IX’s early wars, some fear-mongered that schools would achieve equal athletic opportunities for men and women by cutting teams for the former. In more recent years, Title IX’s protections for student survivors of sexual assault have gained increased attention, and detractors have turned their attention there. In requiring schools to investigate these harms, they say, Title IX has endangered accused men, among whom athletes are disproportionately represented.
There’s a lot wrong with that narrative, as I write in my recent book, Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative Backlash. One problem is critics’ assumption that male athletes are always the accused, and never the victim in need of Title IX’s protections.
When most people think of campus sexual assault victims, they think of women and girls. It’s true that most survivors are female—but certainly not all. In a recent survey, 6.8% of undergraduate men said they had been victims of “nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent.” More than half of college men are sexually harassed while enrolled. To put this into perspective, that means men are significantly more likely to be victims of sexual harms than to be falsely accused of the same.
In my job as a civil rights attorney at Public Justice, I represent many men and boys who were sexually abused as students, and who have now filed Title IX lawsuits. Almost all were assaulted in the context of school sports. One of our youngest clients was repeatedly assaulted by older classmates in a locker room. Over a hundred are survivors of abuse by Richard Strauss, who worked as a team doctor at Ohio State for decades. I’ve followed similar lawsuits filed across the country. The University of Michigan recently settled with over a thousand victims—mostly men—who were sexually abused by its athletics doctor, Robert Anderson.
Our collective ignorance about male sexual victimization often works to obscure this violence. Much “hazing” done within college sports and fraternities is no more than ritualized sexual abuse. Ohio State athletes and coaches often joked that Dr. Strauss’s invasive “exams” were part of their team initiation—jokes that only served to normalize what was, in fact, sexual abuse disguised as medical care. School administrators told our young client’s family that the violence he’d experienced in the locker room was simply “horseplay.” Had he been a girl, the school said outright, it would have taken action.
My boss Adele Kimmel has worked for years to correct the language we use to describe this abuse. “Terminology matters,” she told a journalist. “Some of these boys don’t even recognize that they’ve been sexually assaulted because it’s been normalized by the adults. They call it these euphemistic terms—they call it horseplay, roughhousing, poking, hazing. They don’t call it sexual assault. They don’t call it rape.”
Even when men realize they’ve been victimized, it can be hard to convince others. In one 2010 survey, over a third of police officers said they did not believe the statement “any man can be raped.” In another study of several dozen detectives who worked on sexual assault cases, none “had heard of female-on-male rape.”
Black men face unique challenges in being recognized as victims because of stereotypes that cast them as hypersexual and violent. In the American popular imagination, every victim is a white woman, and every rapist is a Black man. In addition to obscuring the impunity white male abusers have enjoyed for centuries, that trope serves to erase all victims of color, including Black men. As one of Dr. Anderson’s victims at the University of Michigan recently said, “I don’t think the world right now is ready to complete that spectrum of the face of abuse and include African-American men.”
It can also be hard for Black men to defend themselves: When Terry Crews, the former NFL star-turned-actor, was sexually assaulted, he didn’t fight back because, he said, “‘240 lbs. Black Man stomps out Hollywood Honcho,’ would be the headline the next day.”
Title IX, then, is a powerful tool for male athletes, not a threat. The law requires schools to prevent sexual abuse, and to address its effects when it occurs—no matter the victim’s gender. As part of this mandate, schools are required to provide student survivors the support they need to keep learning, including mental health care and academic accommodations. And when schools fall down on the job, male students can bring Title IX suits to force change, just like our clients have. None of this is to deny the discrimination against women students that motivated Congress to pass Title IX. But we should be heartened that combatting sexual abuse in schools doesn’t require a war of the sexes. In the words of #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, “Men’s first role in this movement is as survivors.”
Brodsky is a staff attorney at Public Justice and the author of the book, Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative Backlash, which comes out in paperback June 14.