As a country, we’ve been talking about sexual violence a lot lately, and for the most part, that has been a good thing. For a long time, there were extremely rigid definitions of what constituted a rape or sexual assault — the myth of being attacked by a stranger who rips a woman’s clothes off and forces her to have penetrative sex — but slowly, those are changing. We’re finally starting to view sexual assault and violence as one piece of the rape-culture puzzle, understanding that it doesn’t look a certain way and frequently involves people who already know each other.
One of the most visible examples of this is sexual assault on college campuses. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recognizes this, which is why she announced sweeping rules overhauling how sexual assault and harassment is handled at universities. These proposed guidelines would significantly enhance legal protection — for those accused of sexual assault.
No, you’re not reading that sentence wrong. DeVos legitimately wants to make life easier for those accused. These guidelines have been in the works for more than a year, NPR reported, and would replace Obama-era policies on how to implement Title IX — you know, the law that stipulates that schools that receive federal funding can’t discriminate based on gender.
Under the Obama administration’s policy, the level of proof needed when making an accusation is a “preponderance of the evidence” — in other words, giving weight to convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy rather than the amount of evidence. Under DeVos’ proposal, this would shift to allowing colleges to demand “clear and convincing evidence,” which could be significantly harder to produce.
On top of that, the proposed policy would give both students — the accuser and accused — the opportunity to cross-examine each other. Think about that for a second. Just the threat of being questioned by your rapist is enough to put survivors off reporting. And that’s exactly what DeVos has in mind. Score (yet another) one for rape culture.
According to a survey conducted by the government, 1 in 4 women who are in their last year of college say they have experienced unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact since starting university. Of course, the actual statistic is probably much higher than that. But regardless, this is something that the government itself acknowledges affects one-quarter of the female university population, and yet key members of the administration, like DeVos, think it’s a good idea to roll back the already-limited protections afforded to survivors.
Perhaps she was emboldened by the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Maybe she saw this as her opportunity to really lock in support from the rapist and sexual assaulter community. Either way, as one of the long-surviving members of Donald Trump’s cabinet, DeVos is fully committed to his misogynist agenda.
Her proposed policy piggybacks off the president’s claim that we’ve moved into “guilty until proven innocent” territory when it comes to sexual assault. Even if you buy that, it’s painfully clear that even if a man is deemed “guilty” of committing acts of sexual violence, it’s only under extremely rare, high-profile circumstances — like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey or Bill Cosby — that they see any sort of consequences. And people like DeVos are instrumental in making sure these men are able to rise to — and stay in — power.
In fact, the president himself is living proof you can be considered guilty of sexual assault — not only because of many accusations from women, but also because you literally were caught on tape bragging about it — and then go on to hold the highest office in the country.
The good news is that these regulations won’t go into effect before a 60-day public comment period. The bad news is that there’s no guarantee our input will make any significant difference, and this administration will likely continue to be guided by its broken moral compass.
And what’s even worse news (sorry) is that unlike the Obama-era guidelines, when these are implemented, they will have the force of law without having to be approved by Congress, NPR reported.
So what can we do? Sure, we can weigh in during the public comment period, and like we did earlier this month, continue to elect increasing numbers of women and those who approach the topic of handling sexual violence as if it’s an actual problem and not an inevitable part of society.
If you’re a parent, you can talk to your kids about consent and sexual assault and what it means to make accusations against someone and why it’s important to speak up if anything happens. Yes, this conversation should happen as they head off to college, but it needs to start much earlier than that.
But what about your sons, you ask? If you’re worried about your child getting accused of sexual assault during college — or ever, really — talk to them about how rape culture works and what they can do to avoid perpetuating it. Clearly, this is a concept DeVos has no grasp of, and by introducing these policy proposals is in a position to do some major damage to the progress we’ve made in this area over the past few years.