“For the majority of my undergraduate career I had a terrible experience being sexually harassed, emotionally manipulated, and stalked by my Barrett Honors professor [Jacquelyn Scott Lynch]. This professor was not the only Honors professor abusing students, but ASU’s Title IX Coordinator was dismissive and ambivalent towards my personal experience and my concerns. When I saw students at other schools protesting similar betrayal by their administrations, I wanted to connect students at ASU with that movement. Ultimately, I want to help students at ASU avoid the traumatizing experience I had. That’s why I founded Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault.” – Jasmine Lester
Originally published to Know Your IX June 18, 2014.
Dana Bolger: Who or what inspired you to do the survivor advocacy and activism work that you’re doing at ASU?
Jasmine Lester: I was first inspired by students who were challenging administrators to provide resources for LGBTQ students. I admired the way these student leaders confronted high-up administrators, including ASU’s President, and boldly demanded that ASU foster safe spaces for all students.
For the majority of my undergraduate career I had a terrible experience being sexually harassed, emotionally manipulated, and stalked by my Barrett Honors professor [Jacquelyn Scott Lynch]. This professor was not the only Honors professor abusing students, but ASU’s Title IX Coordinator was dismissive and ambivalent towards my personal experience and my concerns. When I saw students at other schools protesting similar betrayal by their administrations, I wanted to connect students at ASU with that movement. Ultimately, I want to help students at ASU avoid the traumatizing experience I had. That’s why I founded Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault [SDASA].
DB: How have you leveraged the media for change? What have been your frustrations, if any, with that strategy?
JL: Before the Department of Education released their list of schools [under investigation for Title IX violations], the media didn’t really want to talk to me or the people in my organization much. That was disheartening because sometimes it feels that [talking to the media] is the only way you can get a message out. Ever since ASU appeared on the list, I’ve been getting a lot of attention – maybe because I’m only the person talking about it [at ASU]. It’s been really helpful for SDASA, because we’re able to have local news help get our message out.
DB: You’re involved in the “movement” against sexual violence on a national level. What are your thoughts on the direction it’s moving in?
JL: I’m concerned about the Department of Education’s actual enforcement of Title IX. I think it’s great they’re looking at our complaints but I have yet to see real follow-through in holding schools accountable and compelling schools to be compliant. I wish the movement focused more on administrative enforcement and accountability. Bystander intervention and consent education won’t make a difference if administrations and ED continue to evade adequate enforcement of Title IX.
I’m also concerned about the perpetuation of the dominant victim narrative, and I think it’s really important that the movement include non-traditional narratives—like mine as a queer student of color in an abusive relationship with a white female professor, and like another survivor who is a part of our complaint who is a Latino gay man who was raped by a fraternity brother he was dating.
DB: I have a lot of frustrations with that too. You mentioned the importance of responding to a diversity of victims’ experiences and the dangers of fostering a “dominant victim narrative.” When I see news coverage of the issue, nine times out of ten there’s a big glossy picture of a white, straight-presenting female victim. What are your thoughts on the media’s representation of survivors and also what survivor activists should be doing to make sure that representation is, well, actually representative?
JL: It’s really hard to say what activists should do about it. It’s obvious that a certain type of sexual assault victim gets most of the attention and comes to people’s minds when they think about sexual assault victims. It’s frustrating and damaging too, because then you’re erasing entire populations and there’s a lot of oppression that people don’t know about because they’re focused on one narrative.
A way that I’ve tried to combat this is to always talk about intersectionality in my presentations to students about Title IX. We talk about headlines, TV shows, and examples of rape culture in pop culture, and we make sure to talk about race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, how those factor into rape culture, and the representations of victims that we see. I think more people need to take the time to think about and approach activism intersectionally by considering how race, gender, nationality, class, sexual orientation, and ability overlap and influence a victim’s experience with rape culture.
DB: At my school when we went public with our stories, we faced much scarier pushback from students than from administrators themselves. Do you feel that students are stigmatized for speaking out against rape culture at ASU?
JL: It’s hard to say. After I created SDASA, I got a lot of support from students and feminist organizations on campus, and I got in touch with students who were really passionate and upset about what was going on. When I was an undergraduate, the narrative on relationships between students and professors was that it was this really sexy scandal, that everyone wanted to have these relationships, and I was a prude for saying they were abusive. Over the years I’ve noticed that shift a lot, with more people saying, “This is rape culture. This is sexual harassment.”
That said, we still have students (and professors) that say, “This is not abuse because you’re both consenting adults.” There are students and professors who think that others and I are just bitter our relationships with our professors went bad. What’s most difficult to explain is that although a student may be willing to become involved with their professor, the imbalance of power between professor and student inherently undermines a student’s ability to consent and creates huge potential for a professor to take advantage and emotionally or physically abuse students.
DB: In the last month, there’s been a lot of hateful right-wing, MRA pushback, everything from George Will’s column to accused students filing Title IX complaints themselves. We had a lot of initial success and now there seems to be this backlash mounting. Do you feel hopeful about the future?
JL: To be honest, I try not to pay a lot of attention to that stuff. The pushback is annoying and incredibly insensitive, but it doesn’t make me lose hope. I think it’s a signifier of the power that we do have to get people to talk about this when they weren’t talking about it before. There wouldn’t be pushback if they didn’t feel threatened.
DB: I love that. I think we’re making them really fucking terrified, and that makes me happy. Any advice for survivors or student activists on other campuses?
JL: The one thing I wish somebody would have done before I started talking to the administration about my experience is warn me, “The administration is going to treat you really badly. They’re going to do things to trigger you and make you really upset and try to silence you.” I went into it really naïve, I thought that they would actually care and treat me with respect, and that isn’t what actually happened. The fact that I’m able to warn other students has been really helpful for them. I usually tell them, “The administration is there to protect the school, not to protect you. Just keep that in mind.”
DB: In a perfect world, how would ASU respond to a student’s report that they were sexually harassed or assaulted?
JL: They’d start by believing the victim. They’d have the people interacting with victims trained on how to interact with victims. They’d have a site at a gender health center where they can do rape kits. The administration would look at their policies to see how they’re hurting victims and protecting predators. They’d put what survivors want as the priority, rather than money and reputation. It’s hard to describe that because I can’t ever imagine it happening. Right now, I hope all this attention will pressure them to do the right thing because everyone is looking at them, but I wish they would do the right thing because they want to.