Imagine having to go to class with the man that raped you. Or being told by academic advisers that you’re “lazy” for taking medical leave because of the depression and PTSD brought on by sexual assault. Or having to endure a school disciplinary panel ask how it’s physically possible that you were raped without your attacker using lubricant. This is already the reality for campus rape victims, and it’s about to get much worse.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has decided that Obama-era policies that put pressure on colleges to handle campus rape allegations swiftly and fairly are actually unfair to accused rapists. Not a surprising turn of events, I suppose, coming from a woman appointed by a president accused of sexual assault or harassment by a dozen women. Still, it signaled that the Trump administration would be undoing eight years’ worth of extensive work to curb campus sexual assault.
DeVos said yesterday (in a room where zero anti-rape campus advocates were invited), “the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students.” The education secretary spent a tremendous amount of time talking about the ruined lives of accused rapists, as if there are an equal amount of college rape victims and wrongly accused men. (As one person aptly tweeted, “Betsy DeVos on rape, basically: “There’s violence on many sides, on many sides.”)
The truth is that there is no scourge of innocent young men being unfairly targeted. Only 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are shown to be false, and rapists themselves are rarely punished: Only 0.6 percent ever spend a day in jail, less than a quarter of college rapists are expelled, and less than half are suspended. In fact, an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity found that common punishments for perpetrators include writing a research paper on rape or penning a letter of apology to their victim. Are we really to believe that colleges are being overzealous in their efforts to protect rape victims? Come on.
To anti-rape advocates, DeVos’ message is clear: Colleges will no longer be pressured to enforce Title IX with the same level of seriousness. And as DeVos’ office issues new guidance on how to handle sexual complaints, the concern is that all the progress that was made to help victims over the last eight years will quickly unravel. Know Your IX, an anti-rape organization that works on college campuses, said that the education secretary’s actions “risk taking us back to to the days when sexual violence routinely compromised survivors’ access to education and schools swept sexual assault under the rug.”
Thankfully, the law is the law; just because DeVos doesn’t like the way Title IX is being enforced doesn’t change the responsibilities of colleges to adhere to it. But National Women’s Law Center legal fellow Alexandra Brodsky told me, “Just the announcement itself sends a dangerous message to student survivors that their government no longer supports them…and it may discourage schools from doing the legally and ethically right thing.”
Activists are not optimistic about DeVos coming around; this is a woman, after all, who saw no problem taking meetings with misogynist organizations known for harassing women. A woman who has made little effort to meet with anti-rape advocates or understand the complicated issue in depth. But if the response to her announcement is any indication (#StopBetsy was trending all day) college activists will not let rollbacks happen without a fight.
Victims of sexual assault on college campuses need support, they need resources, and they need to be believed. What they don’t need is an administration more concerned about the rights of their rapists.
Jessica Valenti is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com—read her weekly column here.