There are three lies visible in this photograph
In the midst of the furor over police misconduct and the public outcry for a better justice system, a slightly smaller though no less problematic story is bubbling through the media. In November, Rolling Stone Magazine published a disturbing story of a young woman allegedly gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity. The story was poorly researched, unvetted and partly retracted by Rolling Stone. When a story of this magnitude goes wrong, the fallout exceeds the reputation of the journalists and publication, it influences public opinion and policy. It makes an already Sisyphean task of reporting sexual assaults on campus exponentially harder for victims, and damages efforts of reformers trying to correct the problem.
It also spawns a slew of “I Told You So” articles by reporters who feel the problem is over-reported, or inflated by others in the industry. One of these articles is by Slate’s Emily Yoffe who penned a long form article “The College Rape Overcorrection“. Yoffe’s article presents the story of several young men unjustly accused of sexual assault and processed through the campus’ student justice system. It goes on to state the actions of universities, local, state and Federal governments created an environment where men are stripped of their civil rights without due process and often without any tangible evidence. Yoffe deconstructs the statistics of sexual assaults on campus, blowing holes in many common tropes, like 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted during their time in college. Yoffe goes on to her own tropes about alcohol being the underlying factor is most college sexual incidents and closes the article with a call to remove sexual assault investigation from the purview of the University entirely.
This Slate article incorporates so many infuriating arguments into a single piece, were it not for the by-line one would think it came from the pages of a Men’s Rights website. Yoffe presents valid points couched in the worst possible way to discuss the merits contained. By structuring them around “The Girl Who Cried Wolf”, she utterly undercuts the genuine problem of investigating and adjudicating sexual assault claims on campus. By presenting a select group of sympathetic accused, Yoffe plays into the “false rape” paradigm that pervades the institutional thinking of higher education AND police departments. Shifting the behavioral onus onto women when alcohol is a factor seems to imply that men are incapable of controlling themselves when presented with such temptation. Finally, Yoffe’s article fails to account the reality of reporting a sexual assault period, much less on campus.
I spent the first ten years of my adult life as a police officer in the US Military, an environment very much like a university. Dorm life on a military base shared many similarities to dorm life in college, young people filled with hormones and alcohol swirling around one another every weekend. Both also share a sexual assault problem and a culture of denial and institutional cover ups. Upon leaving the military I took a position as a campus police officer at a distinguished university in the Washington DC area. (I am not going to say the name, but the information is easily obtained.) Within a few months, I rose to a supervisory position and this is where my trouble began. I was also a student at this university for most of the time employed.
I, naively, assumed the university possessed a vested interest in properly responding to, investigating and reporting cases of alleged sexual assault. I was quickly disabused of that notion by superiors. Suspected sexual assaults were to be referred to the Metropolitan Police Department for investigation, if we could convince them to send an officer to take the report. If, like in so many cases, there was no physical evidence or more than few hours passed between the incident and the report, the police would rarely bother instructing the victim to “take it through the University”. Yet, the University actively worked to convince victims to change their allegations, to lessen the offense or to simply write off the incident as a “drunken accident”. The student justice system was geared to protect the university’s reputation not the safety of the student. Nor was this a secret, campus support groups and counselors regularly spoke out against these policies only to see them fall on deaf ears. Foolishly, I believed my position offered me chance to help, I got involved with some of the support groups, worked with victims in their student judicial cases and guided them through reporting the incidents to the local police.
This basically cost me my job. I was investigated for ‘inappropriate relationships’ with students. Because of my supervisory position, I lacked union protection and became the target of the department and university’s move to silence both the groups and me personally. I resigned my position and spent another semester as a student realizing my student loans came nowhere near supporting me and attending school. I took another job at a different school in Washington DC, where I found better police department but much the same institutional “protection” when it came to claims of sexual assault.
Make no mistake, a college has a deep vested interest in downplaying sexual assaults to keep admissions high. The Clery Act, a law whose imeptus was the rape and murder of a young on campus, has the mandate for reporting crimes on campus. What it did was create a complex method of categorizing crimes to portray them as the least threatening, least dangerous and least reportable incidents possible. The annual Clery Act submission was a ballet of knock downs to non-reportable incidents and officers on campus were pressed all year-long to classify incidents as the lowest possible status to keep Clery statistics low. This is why colleges and rapes are in such a difficult position now, a law with the best intentions mixed with the brightest marketing minds created a monster culture where rape isn’t really “rape”.
When you mix in the apathy of the local police department, who have their own special brand of data manipulation and closure rates to contend, they possess little interest in dealing with “some drunk college girl crying rape”. Metropolitan Police detectives didn’t collude with the university to keep statistics low, there wasn’t a need. Every detective knew if the case went to the university, it never showed against their monthly open/closed stats. I witnessed detective telling victims without physical evidence or eyewitnesses, there was no case and their best route for actions was “whatever you do at the college”. If the incident was non-violent, 99% were, the local police dumped it back the university and the victim went through student justice.
Student justice usually involved taking the campus police report, already skewed to minimize the incident and conducting an “investigation”. That “investigation” consisted of persons who MAYBE took a class on sexual assault offered by the University interviewing the victim. During that interview, the investigators usually asked such relevant questions like “what were you wearing” or “Are you sure you didn’t say yes, or do something that might make him THINK you said yes”. If the victim were drinking underage, her credibility was immediately suspect and she was often threatened with administrative actions for admitting to the infraction. I heard of a case where the victim was punished for drinking underage, which in college is like blaming water for getting you wet, while the accused was exonerated. Imagine going to court to prosecute the theft of your car and you are locked up for unpaid parking tickets, now imagine you are a rape victim and you are punished for doing something EVERYONE else is doing. This is the student justice system.
I realize my allegorical and nebulous stories (look, I don’t want to be sued) are not evidence. They DO, however, give me insight into what goes within bureaucracy when it is given the power to investigate itself. The culture is broken and it largely blames the victim. So do articles like Yoffe’s.
College students are considered adults in the eyes of the law. Yet, they live in a gray area between children and adults socially. Rare is the college student whose come into their maturity and makes decisions with the clarity of the late twenties and early thirties. They still live recklessly, make poor decisions and drink far too much. Sex is more open and available, experimentation forms identity which means occasional regrets. Both men and women should come in with an understanding and respect for another’s personhood, meaning because YOU are drunk and horny doesn’t mean you can still hit that when she passes out. On the inverse, if you consensually sleep with someone and later regret it don’t turn around a accuse them of rape to make you look better in front or friends or family. Actions equal consequences, teach this from the onset of puberty and watch sexual assault rates fall.
Colleges needs to STOP thinking about protecting themselves, and create a dedicated independent entity to investigate claims of sexual assault on their merits. Train their police forces on how to conduct an initial investigation and the supervisory staff on how to follow it up with local authorities. Local authorities…well the problems there are to numerous to mention, yet if the university puts it’s considerable financial and political weight behind GOOD investigations, departments will provide.
Finally, if you are a journalist looking to write a story about campus rape, for the love of all that’s holy DO SOME FUCKING JOURNALISM! Talk to both sides, get some background and WAIT to report until you have a fact or two. If you’re Emily Yoffee…stick to writing Dear Prudence.