It was 1996, and I was perched on the edge of a hospital bed holding the hand of a sexual assault survivor. Less than 24 hours before, this young woman had been raped and beaten in a campus apartment. A police officer was standing just inside the door and a doctor taking notes and murmuring to a nurse holding a camera.
The student survivor turned to me, her eyes wide with panic, and asked me what I thought she should do. Everyone in that room wanted something from her. The police wanted her to file a report, the doctors wanted her to do a rape kit, and her friend was still shaking with anger by her bedside. I was a sexual assault crisis counselor working for a non-profit on campus, and I was there for her and only her. To make sure her rights as a victim were protected.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
Because here’s the hard truth: Reporting a sexual assault is a long, long terrible road for survivors. There’s the violation of the process, but there’s also the very public forum of the accusation in the media, the criminal proceedings that can drag on for years, and the lifelong trauma that immediately after the assault, survivors are simply too shell-shocked to grasp. I witnessed this same scene play out in dozens of ways throughout my college years, but I can count on one hand how many times victims successfully pursued charges against their rapist.
During Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, there was plenty of conversation about how accusations of sexual assault can ruin men’s lives, but in my years as a sexual assault crisis counselor, I never encountered one accusation that proved to be false or a male student who served prison time as a result of his actions.
I did, however, come to one conclusion through my experiences as a student sexual assault crisis counselor. On college campuses throughout America, sexual assault ruins survivors’ lives and robs them of the right to receive an education in a safe environment.
In more than 20 years, not much has changed. The narrative that false accusations ruin men’s futures and that neither rapists nor college campuses should suffer the consequences of their failure to protect victims is a blast from the past that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to have wholeheartedly embraced in her suggested revisions for Title IX.
Title IX is a law designed to make sure that any educational institutions that use federal funds provide an environment that gives equal access to education. The scope of Title IX has been used not only to fight instances of racism in admissions, but to protect rights for LGBTQ and survivors of sexual assault to have a safe environment on campus.
Cue Betsy DeVos, who is proposing new rules that, at the bequest of men’s rights advocacy groups and the education lobby, will make sexual assault more difficult and traumatic to report for students and will limit the liability of educational institutions to protect survivors. These changes to Title IX alienate rape victims and are designed to protect schools and not survivors. If Devos’ proposed changes to Title IX are enacted, they will allow for the following:
1. Giving schools the latitude to decide what standard of evidence they require for cases of sexual misconduct
2. Raise the bar for defining sexual harassment as “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive enough to deny access to equal education”
3. Requiring a certain set of school staff to have “actual knowledge” of incidents or misconduct and to demonstrate “deliberate indifference”
4. Allowing the accused to question victims and respond to accusations via advisors, or lawyers in a live hearing
5. Schools would not be required to act in regards to misconduct that took place off-campus or outside of a school program or activity
These rules are clearly designed to limit liability for educational institutions and discourage the reporting of sexual assault. Beyond the obviously catastrophic effect this would have on victims, DeVos proposed changes to Title IX would also allow schools to claim religious exemptions for complying with admissions requirements.
These new rules provide wiggle room that will enable universities and colleges to deny access to counseling for certain populations like LGBTQ students, or block women’s reproductive rights through restricting access to birth control at campus health centers. It’s undoubtedly a step backward regarding the right to equal access to education.
Title IX was designed to protect civil rights and access to education, and its intent is not nor has it ever been to prosecute sexual assault in the way a court of law would. The burden of proof should err on the side of victims seeking safe environments, not on the rights of the privileged to exploit a justice system that already favors sexual predators.
Take, for example, the recent case of the Baylor fraternity president, who received no jail time and a $400 fine from a Texas judge for repeatedly raping a female student. The mountain of DNA evidence resulted in a criminal conviction and Baylor did finally expel him, but the criminal justice system, as it so often does, failed this student survivor. Nearly 34 percent of sexual assault victims, most of them women, drop out of college. And as long as our society reinforces that violating a woman’s body is less significant than violating traffic laws, we’ll continue to have an educational system that is not accessible to all.
Want to make your voice heard? There is a 60-day public comment period on the proposed changes to Title IX which ends January 28th. Survivors created a website to help guide advocates and others looking to comment on the Title IX changes. You can find it here.
Kaz Weida is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her areas of expertise include education, gender equality, and all things #MeToo. You’ll find her on Twitter @kazweida, getting into “good” trouble.