Content warning: sexual assault
The United States Secretary of Education has expressed concern that accusations of sexual assault on college campuses have been handled in ways that are biased in favor of female accusers, to the detriment of those accused. While I understand her concern that these matters be handled in a way that is fair to everyone involved, I feel considerable trepidation about the unexamined biases about biases implicated here.
I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and I have worked in the field of mental health counseling for decades. I have heard more stories than I can count about campus sexual assault and the aftermath. My information is anecdotal, but certain themes appear over and over. Eventually, they begin to look much like the same story with the details changed.
A bright and capable young woman goes off to college, often to her “dream school” that she has chosen after an extensive search and multiple visits. Perhaps she has earned substantial scholarship money because she is such an outstanding student. Her future is filled with potential.
Then she is raped. She drops out of school and moves back home. Maybe she finishes the semester first, more likely she looses all her financial aid and sacrifices any progress she has made toward college credit. Maybe she goes back to school eventually, at a local university or community college. Any course credit she has accumulated does not transfer. Maybe she takes a minimum wage job and never goes back to school. Maybe she finishes an undergraduate degree but enters the professional workforce several years behind schedule. She probably doesn’t pursue the graduate degree she had originally planned and perhaps changes fields altogether. During this period of time, she constantly deals with hearing about the successes of her high school friends while enduring endless questions about why she dropped out of such a promising career path.
Meanwhile, what happened to the guy? In every one of the stories I have heard, the answer to that was “nothing” or “not much.” The men in these stories were not strangers in a dark alley. They were “friends” from a class or a student organization or someone met through mutual acquaintances. There was no reason to consider them untrustworthy, let alone dangerous. On the occasions that they were confronted about the behavior, they were dumbfounded and denied any wrongdoing.
Remember, I am talking here about young women whose entire lives were derailed by the incident.
One young woman had invited a friend over to watch a movie. He ignored her protestations that she did not want to have sex. After he left, she called her sister, who drove all night to help her pack up to move home. While they were packing, the guy called to ask her to hang out the next night. Clearly, he had no idea that there was a problem.
Another woman was assaulted while working late on a campus-sanctioned activity after everyone else had left except for the man who decided he wanted to have sex. She followed the school guidelines about reporting to the staff, who encouraged her strongly to stay within the university system rather than going to the police. They interviewed him and accepted his assertion that she consented. She was expected to continue to attend class with him and interact with him on campus. No one from the college contacted her to ask why after she dropped out.
Campus activities are touted as good ways to get experience for future careers and they are encouraged for students as a way to get involved and meet people. The implication is that they are safe places with trustworthy people. In another instance, when two young women started comparing notes and realized that a prominent member of a campus organization had raped them both, they filed a complaint with the university. There complaint was not taken seriously until a third woman came forward and filed a complaint as well. Apparently their word against his was not sufficient. The young woman who told me this story subsequently dropped out over her anxiety about being required to testify about it in front of a tribunal. Meanwhile, they guy was known to brag about how many women in the organization he had had sex with.
Betsy DeVos is operating on the assumption that young men need to be protected from “false accusations.” I contend that these perpetrators have a very flawed idea about what constitutes “consent.” These examples are not “girls who changed their minds after they sobered up,” they are women whose lives were changed forever, along with the lives of the people who love them. The assault on their bodily autonomy is too often followed by an assault by campus personnel on their believability.
I do not specialize in the treatment of sexual trauma. The fact that so many young women have found their way to me with these stories indicates that these are hardly isolated incidents. If Betsy DeVos is going to consider changing policy about the way sexual assault is handled on campuses, the implications are far reaching. If the individual pain and suffering I’ve been describing is not enough, then perhaps she should consider the economic repercussions. What does it cost our economy when so many young women delay or forgo their professional careers? What about lost productivity? What about lost tax revenue? What about the professional fields like medicine or teaching that need new practitioners? How might the world change if all of these young women fulfilled their potential instead of dropping out? What is it costing us as a society to protect the “rights” of young men who don’t know the difference between consensual sex and rape?
Furthermore, what does it say about us as a society that we are sending so many young men off to college with a distorted idea about what they are entitled to, regarding sexual access to the women on campus? Where are we failing to teach them about consent? How do our societal norms reinforce the idea that it is acceptable to force sexual attention on whatever woman catches their interest?
And whose job is it to hold them accountable? I’m asking you, Secretary DeVos.
Note: Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality