The Obama administration announced this week it is launching a major new initiative to combat sexual assault and rape, particularly in college. At first glance, this looks like a noble goal no right-minded person could oppose. Unfortunately, the campaign is less likely to prevent real crimes and protect real victims than to promote gender animosities on college campuses, stigmatizing men and infantilizing women.
According to the White House, one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. These staggering numbers come from the Campus Sexual Assault Study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and conducted from 2005 to 2007. The majority of the assaults in this study — 70 percent — involved “incapacitation’’ by alcohol or drugs. But the survey question was worded so broadly that “incapacitation” could mean a lot of different things: from being unconscious or barely conscious to being intoxicated enough to suffer from impaired judgment.
Most female students in the “incapacitation’’ category did not seem to label their experience as a crime; even when penetration had occurred, only 37 percent believed they had been raped. (And these were college women in the age of mandatory campus date rape awareness programs.) Two-thirds said they did not report the incident because they didn’t think it was serious enough. Only 2 percent felt they had suffered emotional or psychological injury (although the study authors noted that the actual incidence of such trauma was undoubtedly far higher).
Do some college campuses sweep valid complaints of sexual assault under the rug? No doubt. But there have also been credible claims of male students getting expelled after being found guilty by campus kangaroo courts that ignored their side of the story. Just last year, several men involved in such cases filed civil rights suits claiming to be victims of sex discrimination.
One plaintiff, Xialou “Peter” Yu, a Chinese national studying in the United States, was expelled from Vassar College in 2012 for “nonconsensual sexual contact” with a female student. According to court documents, Yu and his accuser went back to his dorm room after a party; he claims she was the one who initiated sex. After his roommate walked in on them, the woman decided to stop, got dressed and left; in the months that followed, they exchanged several friendly Facebook messages, with the woman explaining that she hadn’t been ready for a relationship, apologizing for the misunderstanding and inviting Yu to dinner (which he declined).
One year after the encounter, the woman filed disciplinary charges. Yu says he was not allowed an attorney and was denied his request to call his roommate and the woman’s roommate as witnesses; he also claims his attempts to cross-examine his accuser were repeatedly stymied, with questions about her messages (which she had earlier told an investigator she sent out of “fear”) were barred as “irrelevant.” A three-person faculty panel found him guilty based on the woman’s claim that she was too drunk to consent and two students’ testimony that she appeared inebriated when walking with Yu to the dorm.
Of course a woman’s intoxication is not license for assault. But the very serious crimes of rape and sexual assault should not be lumped together with what may be regrets about doing something stupid under the influence, a common experience for young people of both sexes.
At many schools, training for administrators, faculty, and students involved in the handling of sexual assault complaints often amounts to indoctrination in the politically correct version of gender bias. In 2011, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicized Stanford University’s reading materials for student jurors, which warned that acting “logical and persuasive” in one’s defense was typical of an abuser and that one should be “very, very cautious” in accepting a man’s claim of innocence since “the great majority of allegations” are truthful.
In recent years, the Obama administration has pressured colleges to take a tougher stance on alleged sexual offenses — notably, to lower the standard of proof for sexual assault complaints from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence” (which means the believable evidence tips slightly in the claimant’s favor). The government’s new campaign is likely to exacerbate the biases against the accused.
The prevalence of reckless, alcohol-fueled sex on many college campuses is certainly cause for concern. But the answer is to promote responsible behavior for both sexes —
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.