Focus on campus assault gray areas, not red or blue

Vice President Joe Biden hugs Madeleine Smith, who was a rape victim while a student at Harvard, after speaking on the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
Vice President Joe Biden hugs Madeleine Smith, who was a rape victim while a student at Harvard.

No, conservative commentator George Will should not be fired because, when writing about campus sexual assault, he declared that colleges are learning when they “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

He’s an opinion writer, which means he has the right to express an opinion, even one that’s offensive to women, especially to some feminists now lobbying to get his column dropped.

On the perks of “victimhood,” I don’t agree with Will. Anyone who followed recent accounts of college women who say they were sexually assaulted would find it hard to conclude their experience represents a “coveted status” that “confers privilege” — unless you also believe the old adage that any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right. These are painful stories to read.


But Will’s questioning of statistics and how best to deal with campus sexual assault are not outrageous. It’s easy to cast it that way because, just like Benghazi and Bowe Bergdahl, the matter of sexual relations between our college-age children breaks down along ideological lines. In this case, a blast of tweets from the left quickly stirs an off-with-his-head frenzy.

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Ever since the White House released a report aimed at exposing the problem of sexual assault on campuses, this topic has become yet another excuse for partisan braying.

As lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer wrote recently for WBUR’s Cognoscenti website, “The right has its own politically correct mandate to oppose any Obama administration civil rights initiative. The left labors under a pop feminist mandate to reflexively believe self-identified victims of sexual assault.”

While I don’t think the left’s “mandate” is quite as superficial and knee-jerk as Kaminer describes, the larger point of where this all leads is worth considering: If everyone looks at the problem through a political prism, how can anyone objectively weigh the pros and cons of solutions? That’s what bogs down Washington.

The push is for colleges to get tougher on accused offenders. The first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault — released in April — calls for schools to produce a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy and institute tougher disciplinary systems that turn on a “preponderance of evidence” standard. Under it, the accuser is granted relief if a school disciplinary board determines there is more than a 50 percent certainty of guilt.


Critics like Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, question why schools should be holding “rape trials,” given the stakes for alleged victims — and for alleged perpetrators.

In The Daily Beast, Cathy Young presents the case of Daniel Kopin, a 21-year-old former Brown University student, who was publicly accused of sexually assaulting a classmate and suspended for a year for “sexual misconduct.” If Kopin is the rapist his accuser claims, “he should be doing time in prison, not getting suspended or even expelled,” writes Young. “If he is innocent, he has been effectively branded a criminal without any of the safeguards normally accorded to criminal defendants.”

I’ve written on this from the perspective of college women who see campus sexual assaults as an outgrowth of male entitlement gone wild, and believe colleges are more interested in protecting their brand than their female students. There’s truth to that view.

But other cultural phenomena also come into play, such as excessive alcohol consumption and today’s blurry lines between friends and lovers. Acknowledging that does not mean blaming women. Consent while under the influence of alcohol is not consent and no means no, even if yes preceded it the day before.

Yet — here I agree with Will — the combination can make for some gray areas. Should colleges adjudicate the gray, or just call the cops? It’s a fair question.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.