Let's Talk About the Title IX Situation

Editor’s Note: This article contains discussions and mentions of sensitive topics, including rape and sexual assault. Reader discretion advised.

The Caltech experience for women and non-binary folks is undeniably influenced by the fact that the majority of people at this school are men. Only in the past few decades has the undergraduate gender ratio at Caltech approached some semblance of balance. Enrollment statistics for Fall 2022 show that 55% of undergraduates are male. Not too shabby for an all-STEM institution. Despite these encouraging statistics, many female and non-binary students at Caltech will tell you this: the “male” culture at Caltech still runs deep. Pockets of safe spaces are just that–pockets, created intentionally far away from the dominant campus culture.

When I first enrolled at Caltech, I was excited. There were lots of professors who were eager to work with undergraduates, the student body was bound by the honor code, and there were so many people who were interested in STEM, like I was. That’s all I needed to commit; the lack of diversity and the skewed gender ratio at Caltech were not big factors in my mind. But it wasn’t long before I realized there was something in the culture at this school that fundamentally opposed my own values: the muted tolerance of misogyny.

Before I started at Caltech, I joined Caltech’s Discord for new admits, as it seemed like the main mode of communication for prefrosh. I introduced myself and posted a few messages. Soon, I received an unsolicited message that could only be interpreted as an awkward and slightly sexual innuendo from a fellow student. I deleted it immediately. I wasn’t even sure who it was, given the anonymity of the platform, though I could guess based on the username. I reached out to my Frosh Camp Counselor (FCC), who told me that I could report it to the Title IX office if I wished. I ended up not reporting it. Creating any conflicts before even arriving on campus wasn’t worth it in my mind–and, as I would learn later, contacting the Title IX office usually resulted in little more than empty, corporate niceties thanking me for sharing my concerns and sending me on my merry way.

After arriving on campus, I learned that this uncomfortable blip in my Caltech Welcome was a common experience for female undergraduate students–mostly female students who had a social media presence, whether on Facebook, Discord, Snapchat, or Instagram. Messages with subtle or overt sexual undertones. Unsolicited pictures on Snapchat. Upon engaging with the messages, plain misogyny would often rear its head. On campus, these interactions could be curbed if you avoided the right people. But sometimes, I would hang out in the House lounges or Bechtel suites and overhear conversations that objectified women, that reeked of misogyny. Many “jokes” had racist or homophobic undertones. Unfortunately, I know I am far from the only student who has been in a situation where a male student says something deeply uncomfortable in front of you and your friends, and there is no comfortable way out. Lash out to a man “making a joke” in a campus of only 1000 undergrads, and soon, you’ll have rumors surrounding YOU. And the worst part? More often than not, they end up being your TA, your next-door neighbor, your House secretary, or your classmate in a ultra-hard class of 10 people. Better to stay safe than sorry.

Tolerance of these behaviors breeds the grounds for sexual assault and violence. And Caltech is no stranger to these incidents, no matter how much it tries to avoid these topics. Rumors float around often: this guy was accused of sexual assault twice. This guy abused his ex-girlfriend. This guy raped someone during rotation. The names grace their ways into many of the conversations that women have at this school, not to viciously spread rumors, but to increase awareness. Because all of these men that I know–some whose crimes are reported to Title IX or the police–still remain at Caltech. They attend their classes and work as TAs, hosting office hours and grading sets. They go to interhouse parties. Occasionally, they are banished to Bechtel (what a horrible fate). But in each of these scenarios, they are allowed to carry out their everyday lives after committing crimes that change their victims’ lives forever.

Some may point out that this is true of most colleges and maybe even worse at others. But isn’t the goal of Caltech to be Less Like Other Colleges and create a space that actually feels safe for the 45% of undergraduates who chose to attend this school for its professed values? We deserve to be somewhere where we can learn and thrive, not somewhere that tells us that the consequence for sexual assault is being banished to the newest and nicest housing development on campus. Not somewhere that, despite all of their lofty announcements about increasing equity, continues to send the message every day that the Title IX office is just a building where you can expect to hear a response that ChatGPT and a lawyer could have generated. Caltech, please do better.