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2014 was the year college sexual assault became impossible to ignore

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

College sexual assault isn't a new problem. But this year, it suddenly started to seem urgent. This came about in part due to increased scrutiny and reporting on individual cases, and in part because the White House and Congress got involved.

Much of the credit, though, goes to a group of committed activists: victims of sexual assault who blamed not just their assailants, but also their colleges. They haven't solved the problem. We still don't even know how common campus sexual assault really is. But one thing is clear: it's no longer something colleges can sweep under the rug.

This is an incredible success. Few groups of women in their early 20s have been able to get society at large to sit up and take notice of their issues. But these activists did — and here's how it happened.

1) Title IX became a secret weapon against sexual assault

Sign celebrating Title IX David Sherman/NBA via Getty Images

(David Sherman/NBA)

Title IX, the landmark law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, turned 40 in 2013. But it's looking like its first four decades were just the prologue. It's now been reinvented as a powerful weapon in the fight against campus sexual assault.

"People think it just had to do with girls and basketball," says Lisa Maatz, the top policy adviser for the American Association of University Women. "It's much, much broader than that."

Since 1980, colleges have been required to protect students from sexual assault as part of their Title IX responsibilities. But that was a little-known and rarely enforced feature of the law until the Obama administration sent a strongly worded letter to colleges in 2011 to remind them of their responsibilities. Among other things, they directed colleges to use a lower standard — "preponderance of the evidence," or a 50.1 percent likelihood of guilt — when adjudicating sexual assault complaints.

The Obama administration's focus, which later widened to a White House Task Force on Sexual Assault, is part of how the issue became so widely discussed this year. Congress got involved as well, including new rules for colleges that passed as part of the Violence Against Women Act renewal and a study by Sen. Claire McCaskill on the prevalence of sexual assault. "You've got new rules, you've got White House interest, you've got stronger enforcement," Maatz said.

But policy conversations don't explain the groundswell of complaints on campuses. When the Obama administration sent the "Dear Colleague" letter on sexual assault, just 19 complaints were filed that year to the Education Department alleging that colleges had violated students' rights. It In 2012, there were even fewer: just 17.

But then the numbers started climbing. In the 2013 fiscal year, 32 Title IX complaints were filed. And between October 2013 and October 2014, fiscal year 2014, there were 96.

Title IX complaints chart

Title IX gave victims "a legal framework for what otherwise could have been easily dismissed individual narratives," says Alexandra Brodsky, one of the founders of Know Your IX, an activist group on campus sexual assault.

2) Smart organizing made people sit up and take notice

Columbia mattress protest

Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia senior, carries a mattress in protest of Columbia's sexual assault policy. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A handful of women, all recent college graduates, have organized survivors of campus sexual violence and their allies to put the issue front and center. And proposed legislation in Congress and recommendations in a White House task force report were taken directly from student survivors, Brodsky says.

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who filed a Title IX complaint against the University of North Carolina, were willing to use their real names and put the issue in the spotlight in 2013; they've now formed End Rape on Campus. It's staffed by other sexual violence survivors who have filed well-publicized complaints, including at Occidental, Swarthmore, and Columbia. Know Your IX has a similar purpose and structure.

Both groups made it clear that campus sexual assault was part of a national problem. And they managed to get policymakers to listen not just to their issues, but to their proposed solutions.

"We didn’t all come from policy backgrounds, but experiencing a problem firsthand provides a certain kind of expertise and a freedom to think about creative solutions," Brodsky says.

And while some students who went through sexual violence choose to remain anonymous, the new national groups have also given a broader platform to those willing to put their names to their stories.

3) Media reports of badly handled sexual assaults became more and more common

Part of the reason campus sexual assault went on the agenda was the media. At Florida State, the New York Times reported, an allegation of rape against the football team's star quarterback was barely investigated, let alone punished. At Occidental College in California, a lawsuit from a student expelled for sexual assault led to accusations that the administration was punishing students who speak up. At Columbia, Emma Sulkowicz is carrying her mattress with her in protest until the man she said raped her (who says he is innocent of the charge and was not found guilty by a campus panel) is no longer enrolled there.

And before the Rolling Stone story on an alleged gang rape at UVA unraveled, it started a national discussion about fraternities and sexual violence.

News stories like this don't happen on their own. Many of these stories required alleged victims who were willing enough to speak to reporters — in many cases using their real names, part of their real names, or their photos — about what had happened to them.

It's possible that society is moving toward greater openness about sexual assault in general. More than a dozen women have publicly put their names to allegations that Bill Cosby had raped them, for example. But the organizing work created a network for sexual assault victims and a way to talk about the issue as a nationwide problem.

"It’s only in the last couple of years that people have started to feel comfortable coming forward and putting a real face to the issue," Brodsky says.

That visibility is a big reason for why the issue made it all the way to the Oval Office this year.

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