Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault and abuse.

As a Bystander Intervention Facilitator at Wesleyan University, I teach that survivors of sexual assault have the agency to define their experience. Wesleyan survivors are robbed of this agency, as attempts from both the institution and the student body to hold perpetrators accountable are rarely meaningfully influenced by the survivor. 

When discussing the importance of consent, I always explain that the root cause of sexual assault is a desire for power and control, not necessarily sexual gratification. Sexual assault is an umbrella term that includes a range of experiences that are not always grounded in a physical act. Emotional manipulation, non-consensual exposure to pornography, digital exploitation, and gaslighting can all be examples of non-physical sexual assault. In certain circumstances, an act that is physical, but not inherently sexual, like an unwelcome arm squeeze or shoulder massage, could also be categorized as sexual assault. What is considered assault may be dependent on the context within which an act occurred, and whether or not consent was given. In the end, the survivor defines their experience. 

The primary mode for the University to adjudicate allegations of sexual assault is Title IX, a 1972 Federal civil rights law that aims to protect people from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, in education and employment programs that receive federal funding. In theory, this policy should be a tool to hold perpetrators accountable both legally and within the Institution, while offering survivors support in healing. In actuality, the overly bureaucratic Title IX system leaves little room for nuance, only acknowledging an instance of assault when it unequivocally matches up with a predetermined definition and then relying on a menu of inflexible fixed punishment that attempts to hold perpetrators accountable. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court established that Title IX would recognize an incident as harassment only if it was “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Under this policy, institutions decide when harassment is severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, not the survivor. 

 The Obama Administration broadened this narrow 1999 definition to encourage students to report incidents that had not yet become severe or pervasive but were at risk of becoming so if there was no intervention. Unfortunately, the new Title IX regulations set forth by the Trump Administration, effective August 14th, 2020, have re-established the outdated, limited definition of assault.

Wesleyan has created programs that seek to prevent assault, such as Bystander Intervention Trainings, and offers measures designed to support survivors that do not necessitate the same bureaucratic steps as Title IX. These “non-disciplinary” services include academic accommodations, counseling, mutual restrictions of contact between parties, and temporary housing options. However, many students feel like Title IX is the only avenue offered by the University to hold perpetrators officially accountable. Invoking a Title IX is a difficult, emotionally taxing, and drawn-out process, (only made worse by the new requirements) so the student body has turned to alternative ways to hold fellow students responsible. 

Recently, the app Yik Yak has become ubiquitous on campus. Yik Yak is essentially an anonymous hyper-local Twitter, where posts range from opinions about campus food to complaints about noise levels in the quiet library, to self-deprecating jokes about study habits. That changed a week and a half ago when someone posted a list of coded names and Yik Yak became a platform to call out campus perpetrators of sexual assault.

It did not take long for the post to be decoded. The tainted names were easily recognizable, as every person on that list had previously been “canceled,” or socially excluded to the point where their names had become slurs. Students had already gone out of their way to prove their disdain for these people, some of whom they did not know, insinuating that the assaulters needed to pay and suffer. Although the list was an attempt to empower survivors by legitimizing their experiences through calling out their abusers, it actually took agency away from them, as survivors no longer had control over their own interactions with their perpetrators and how they wanted to navigate them.

My peers at Wesleyan seem to pride themselves in advocating for political movements that preach restorative justice and community-based care, and so this method of accountability seems antithetical to student values. The demonization of people who are accused of horrible things and accordingly have been completely vilified and ostracized does not actually help the goals of accountability and meaningful change. For one, countless studies have proven that shunning perpetrators actually increases the likelihood that they will re-offend, especially when their only options for companionship become other violators who have been socially rejected. Canceling also does not have any bureaucratic legitimacy with the University. Although it does ensure that survivors will not interact with their perpetrators at social events, it does nothing to prevent such interactions in other University spaces like classrooms, dining halls, and dorm hallways. And yet students cling onto this ability to exclude and “cancel” because it is the only form of power they feel they have.

We need an updated system of accountability, rooted in community-based, restorative efforts. Brown University recently introduced a transformative justice system that uses community networks, not the University, as the primary source of accountability. If the survivor chooses, a facilitator guides conversation between the survivor, the perpetrator, and the communities they share (sports teams, clubs, friend groups, etc.) to come up with next steps, specific to the situation and communal needs. A system like this analyzes a situation’s individual complexity to produce meaningful action instead of social theatrics or arbitrary punishment, and therefore promotes healing, accountability, and resilience.

Leila Henry is a member of the Class of 2023 and can be reached at