Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently outlined plans to review Title IX policies regarding sexual assault on college campuses. While the Q&A released by the Education Department provided little rationale for these changes, some insights can be gained from the statement DeVos made last month. Relying predominantly on first-hand testimonies from selected survivors and individuals who had been wrongly accused, DeVos’s statement repeatedly emphasizes that the current system is failing: failing to protect survivors, and failing to protect the accused. She stresses that the potential overhaul of these policies will increase protections for all students, and will address the shortcomings of the guidelines established by the Obama administration.
Understanding where the current Title IX protections are falling short requires a comprehensive knowledge of the relevant statistics on sexual assault prevalence, reporting, and conviction. As DeVos includes no reference to these data anywhere in her statement, some relevant information will be summarized here.
Based on the current estimates,
- One in five women will experience campus sexual assault.
- These risks are substantially higher for people of color and sexual/gender minorities.
- Between 5-25% of men are estimated to be at risk of perpetrating an assault. One 2015 study indicated one in ten male college students already had.
- About 25% of sexual assaults are reported, and an estimated .6% of assaults lead to a conviction.
- Of those reported, between 2-10% are estimated to be unfounded (which may or may not mean false).
- The odds of a man being falsely accused of rape are thus approximately 2.7 million to one. He is at least 82,000 times more likely to be sexually assaulted himself (estimates range from to 1 in 33 to 1 in 6)
Early in her statement, DeVos expresses a desire to eradicate sexual assault from college campuses, and to broaden and improve upon existing protections:
“One assault is one too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many. One person denied due process is one too many.”
However, at no point does she refer to strategies devoted to reducing the risk of campus sexual violence. There is no discussion of how to tackle the barriers victims face reporting their assaults, or being taken seriously when they do. No talk of how to address the frightening rape-supportive ideologies propagated by fraternities and male-dominated sports institutions. No reference to initiatives aimed at consent or sexual communication interventions for young men and women.
Instead, DeVos uses this statement as a platform to repeat historical arguments made throughout history to silence victims and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their experiences:
“Any perceived offence can become a full-blown Title IX investigation. But if everything is harassment, then nothing is.”
She effectively ignores affirmative consent policy efforts that move the burden of proof away from the victim (to prove assault) and onto the accused (to prove consent), instead emphasizing the importance of interrogating victims’ claims:
“Justice demands humility, wisdom and prudence. It requires a serious pursuit of truth.”
DeVos does address the experience of survivors in parts, though she is quick to clarify she believes it is the policies, and not the perpetrators, that need changing:
““I don’t think it’s the rape that makes the person a victim,” the student told a reporter. She said it is the failure of the system that turns a survivor into a victim. This is the reality.”
The question of why rape occurs at such an alarming rate – or indeed at all – is seemingly irrelevant here.
Secretary DeVos’s statement made several things clear. She has little intention of challenging campus cultures of sexual assault or supporting prevention efforts. Rather, she will address what she believes to be the more pressing issues of false accusations and the seeming imbalance between the rights of survivors and those of the wrongly accused. The risk of false accusations is statistically negligible when compared the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault, but DeVos is once again ensuring that the reputations of a handful of (predominantly) white, middle class men take precedence over the safety of women, people of color, and sexual/gender minorities. Her proposed changes will set back the efforts of activists, survivors, and educators, and ignore decades of scientific and policy work in this area.