What is fair about campus sexual assault?

Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held meetings to discuss rolling back Obama-era policies designed to reduce campus sexual assaults. Controversially, she gave particular attention to men’s rights groups like the National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), organizations that shift the blame for campus sexual assault onto (typically) female victims. DeVos justified these meetings with the language of “fairness,” of giving an “equal hearing” to all involved in the conversation. As a researcher of campus sexual assault, I know the opposite is true: that elevating the discourse of groups that spread misinformation and actively work against the interests of survivors is anything but fair.

Since beginning my dissertation on campus sexual assault in 2014, I have been immersed in conversations with people directly impacted by this issue. I embedded within a campus sexual assault peer education group for a semester. I conducted 32 in-depth interviews with university officials working on the issue, including Title IX coordinators, victim advocates, and deans of students. I spent 50 hours in training to work for RAINN’s online sexual assault hotline. I conducted focus groups with undergraduates to see what they knew about the issue and how the university communicates about it. I conducted interviews with survivors who were fighting so that others wouldn’t have to go through their horrific experience.

Each interaction confirmed an essential point: sexual assault survivors are used to not being believed. Survivors find all of their choices questioned: Why did you go out? Why did you wear that? Why didn’t you know when to stop? Could it just have been a misunderstanding? The subtext to these questions is the same: Are you making this up?

It is well-documented that false accusations rarely happen. False rape reports represent between 2 and 8 percent of all reported cases while the majority of rapes — 66 percent — go unreported to law enforcement.

Yet the DeVos-led Department of Education has given a national platform to those who spread the myth that false accusations ruin the lives of the (typically male) accused. They have furthered a destructive discourse of “fairness” that creates concern for the perpetrator who “made a mistake” rather than the ongoing trauma of their victims. DeVos herself has stated that too many accused students are treated unfairly in the handling of campus sexual assaults. This disproportionate focus on false rape accusations further elevates and propagates misogynistic power structures that silence survivors’ experiences.

Rape myths grab hold of the public discourse because sexual consent is an incredibly misunderstood issue, especially in a country focused on abstinence-only education. Candice E. Jackson, a top Department of Education official tasked with enforcing campus sexual assault laws, falsely claimed that 90 percent of campus rape accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because [the victim] just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’” Jackson walked this statement back, but her exaggeration of the facts belies the assumption behind DeVos’s meetings with “men’s rights” organizations. Having female leaders in the Department of Education further rape myths only serves to delegitimize an issue struggling for legitimacy.

DeVos and Jackson have framed their hearings for victim-blaming organizations as a way to guarantee “equality.” But as with debates over global warming, giving “equal weight” to “both sides” willfully disregards what evidence has to say about the topic. As Distinguished UCLA Professor Sandra Harding explains, perspectives that claim to be “value-neutral” generally uphold the “interests of dominant groups” by placing different claims of hardship on equal footing.

Gender is the single most consistent factor in explaining who fears crime, and for women, sexual assault is the greatest concern. Incoming female freshmen are at the highest risk of sexual assault. They are often preyed upon by older male students who have also been socialized into a system where this behavior is encouraged and often goes unpunished. In giving an equal hearing to the male accused, the Department of Education is only working to uphold the power of those who already possess it.