Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Campus rape solution remains elusive

Students held up signs about rape during new student orientation in Sept. 2015 on the Stanford University campus.
Tessa Ormenyi via AP
Students held up signs about rape during new student orientation in Sept. 2015 on the Stanford University campus.

You know we’re messing up on campus rape when feminists and Betsy DeVos find common ground.

On Sept. 7, DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, said she’ll roll back a 2011 directive from the Obama administration that required colleges to take a more aggressive approach to investigating claims of sexual assault. DeVos said the directive has led to “kangaroo courts” that denied due process to the accused.

To many critics, it looked like yet another attempt by the Trump administration to undermine civil rights protections, to reverse our progress on combating sexual assaults, which too often go unpunished, on campus and elsewhere.

Advertisement

It’s hard to discern DeVos’s motivations here: Does the secretary, whose views are generally pretty retrograde, really care about sexual assault, or has she been swayed by men’s rights activists who want to turn back women’s gains? Her civil rights chief, Candice Jackson, tipped her hand back in July, dismissing “90 percent” of campus rape claims as “ ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation,’ ” referring to the federal antidiscrimination law. Jackson walked back those appalling remarks, but it’s hard to un-say something so disdainful.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

But whether or not the administration’s heart is in the right place (I vote not), they have some liberals and feminists on their side here. They argue that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of those who make claims of sexual assault, violating the rights of those who are accused.

There are some truly awful examples to support that view, of young men (it’s overwhelmingly men) who got caught up in Kafkaesque investigations after sexual encounters they believed were consensual, or who were unable to fight the claims in any meaningful way because of rules imposed by the Obama directive. Even for this feminist, it’s hard to read those stories and avoid concluding that, when it comes to disputes over consent, some colleges have overcorrected.

Can we fix the policy without further stacking the deck against those who summon the courage to come forward and report an assault?

I don’t know. What we’re talking about here is creating rules to govern adolescent encounters often muddied by copious amounts of alcohol. Unlike the case of the Stanford freshman whom two passersby caught raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, what we’re dealing with is mostly not clear-cut. The assaults almost always occur in private, without witnesses. The disputes are often over whether the both parties consented to sex, and it’s the victim’s word against the alleged assailant’s.

Advertisement

It’s a morass, and I don’t trust an administration led by a president who himself boasted of sexually predatory behavior to find a way through it.

More distressing: That we’re here at all. It’s 2017. Aren’t young women supposed to be more empowered than their mothers and grandmothers? Shouldn’t we be past the point where young men treat them as if their wishes, their bodies, don’t matter?

Attorney Djuna Perkins investigates sexual misconduct cases for many local schools. She has found those accused of sexual assault responsible just over half the time, she says.

Though Perkins believes the Obama directive is working, she has seen plenty that might make one despair. We’re still sending entitled young men to college, men who think of women as property. They’re often influenced by pornography, which they can access anywhere, and at alarmingly tender ages, depicting aggressive or violent sexual behavior, and women who enjoy it. Some men are still clueless, despite our best efforts, about matters of sex and clear consent, and may find themselves facing accusations with no effective way to respond.

We teach girls to embrace their sexuality, but some boys see open season in that liberation. And even young women who are comfortable with their sexuality are sometimes unable to make their wishes heard.

Advertisement

“Tons of young women feel obligated,” Perkins says. “The pressures are to be nice, and accommodating.”

If we could fix all of that, we wouldn’t need perfect campus rape policies. We wouldn’t need them at all.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.