The Rise of Compliance Culture: A Dead End for Ending Campus Sexual Violence

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By Susan B. Marine and Z Nicolazzo

Imagine this scenario: Two college students on their first date, engaging in intimate contact.  Chris feels suddenly uncomfortable with the pace of the interaction, and the insistence with which Sam is pushing them toward their limits.  Feeling unsafe, threatened, and increasingly anxious, Chris declares, “Sam, you’re in violation of Title IX right now.  You have to stop.”

Having a hard time imagining that scenario as realistic?  We do, too.  Some higher education professional associations, however, are hoping it resonates.

On March 26, ACPA—College Student Educators International announced its partnership with Compliance U to its membership.  In the promotional video for this partnership, Professor Peter F. Lake announced, “We have entered into an era of compliance.”  Against a backdrop of images from the U.S. Civil Rights movement, ACPA Executive Director Cindi Love agrees, stating, “During this particular era, what we know is that [legal] compliance is the area that is affecting more people in Student Affairs and Higher Education, and potentially students, than virtually anything in our most recent history.”  The implication: Campus sexual violence, responses to it, and its prevention, is mostly an issue of compliance with Title IX.

The suggestion through the video is that by focusing on compliance, higher education administrators can advance liberation and social justice, especially in relation to sexual violence on college campuses.  By knowing, and enforcing, particular mandates issued by the federal government, violence committed by students against other students will be abated, as if the root cause of such violence is in fact a poor understanding of law.  However, the work we have undertaken regarding sexual violence prevention indicates the exact opposite: using compliance frameworks will never get us to the liberatory futures we desire in higher education.  In fact, we agree with Sara Ahmed, who equated to such compliance focused work to “tick box diversity” in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Recently, we completed a national study exploring how sexual violence prevention educators (SVPEs) conceptualize gender in their work.  As both former community and university-based sexual violence prevention workers, as well as being scholars who focus on trans* equity and justice, we wanted to know how—if at all—the gender binary was being deconstructed through sexual violence work.  In other words, while current research indicates that trans* and gender non-conforming students face incidents of sexual violence at higher rates than cisgender women, we were troubled by the continued focus on sexual violence prevention through an exclusively gender binary framework which consistently foregrounds cisgender women as survivors.

An unintended outcome of our interviews was that participants kept talking about their need to focus on aspects of compliance.  This compliance culture (as we discuss our work)—or what Lake and Love termed the era of compliance—came at the detriment of a more liberatory sexual violence prevention framework.  The increased needs of SVPEs to focus on compliance foreclosed the possibilities of their recognizing and addressing the needs of those who are most vulnerable to sexual violence: trans* and gender non-conforming students, especially trans* women and trans* femme people.  As one participant in our study, Cate, clearly stated, “I view myself as a compliance person.”  Mac, another participant, said, “I quickly learned that being a sexual violence prevention educator on a college campus is having to know and understand … all of those bajillion different legislations at a federal and state level that really mandate a lot of the work.”  Here, it is quite clear that Cate and Mac’s focus was less on gender-based violence prevention and more on tick-box diversity due to the overwhelming press of the current era of compliance.

It is important to note that we don’t fault the SVPEs for adhering to this focus, but rather, the relentlessly marketed promotion of the notion of compliance as the primary focus of the work happening on campuses currently.  In addition to ACPA, other organizations such as The Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), The Education Law Association, and PaperClipWebinars rely heavily on compliance-focused language in their offerings.  PaperClip, for example, warns of 10 Lawsuits That You May Not Be Aware Of: Protect Your Institution & Mitigate Risk” and “Conducting Trauma-Informed Investigations: Avoid Re-traumatization, Improve Disclosure & Meet Compliance Obligations.”

It seems strange to us to invite an overt focus on compliance through the front door.  To be clear, neither of us think complying with federal, state, and local policies regarding sexual violence is wrong or should not be done.  However, we assert that if compliance becomes the only—or primary—framework through which we understand and address sexual violence, we will never achieve the liberation we seek.  Compliance does nothing to address the harms of the cultural backdrop, often called rape culture, that encourages hostility toward survivors, and that advances a particularly insidious form of masculinity that centers sexual aggression as normative, even desirable.  Compliance does nothing to engage students, faculty, staff and alumni—and our surrounding communities—in the hard work of deconstructing this culture, and building new ones based in personal agency, respect, and consciously chosen, reciprocal intimacy in its place. Moreover, our research indicates that compliance culture serves as a significant barrier to addressing sexual violence prevention through a liberatory, most-vulnerable-first framework that must be our guide.  Indeed, this is the only way to move forward with sexual violence work, as doing so will provide a platform through which we can begin to realize college campuses free of sexual violence.

So how could we do this, then?  How could we actually focus on gender-based equity and justice in sexual violence prevention efforts?  Based on our findings and the troubling trend of compliance-speak, we offer the following ideas.  First, those responsible for combating sexual violence on campus must actively resist the incessantly promoted “product” that says that focusing on compliance with federal law is the way to end sexual violence on campus.  It is temptingly straightforward to engage in “tick box diversity,” and can yield a false sense of mastery over a complex, multi-faceted social problem.  It is messy to unpack the interlocking strands of the abuse of power, the miasma of campus alcohol abuse and hegemonic masculinity that conceals predatory behavior, and the persistent rejection of survivor agency and truth-telling.  It’s perhaps the hardest work we’ll ever do to enact change on our campuses—and it can’t be accomplished, or even remotely affected, by participation in over-priced webinars that tout “best practices” without evidentiary support.  Only by concerted, collective effort at all levels of institutional life to name the causes and conditions that portend sexual violence, and ensuring that students of all genders are included in cultural change work to reduce and eventually eliminate sexual violence, can we meet our most important mandate: The bodily safety and emotional thriving of all of our students.

The truth is, when sexual violence is perpetrated, it isn’t because Chris and Sam are locked in a disagreement about “compliance.”  It’s time we moved our commitment to ending violence beyond this empty notion, as well.