Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and several of her colleagues at the Department of Education have again shown their ignorance of the fundamental issues in the higher education landscape. DeVos has signaled that she intends to change policies intended to protect college sexual assault survivors under Title IX, including meeting with former students accused of rape. Candice Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education, stated recently that “90 percent” of sexual assault cases under review “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk.’ ” Jackson has since apologized for her comments, but these comments show a lack of understanding of the issues that underlie sexual assault — mainly the meaning of consent.
First, false reporting of rape is similar to the false reporting of other crimes: very infrequent. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assaults are false, but also note that protocols and a lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual assault leads to an inflation of the rates for false reporting — what is categorized as “false” does not always mean the accuser is untruthful. Second, most sexual assaults are not reported to the police — an estimated 63 percent.
These facts should be considered in the wake of the 2015 Association of American Universities survey of 150,000 students at 27 institutions, which found that 25 percent of transgender, genderqueer, questioning or not listed (TGQN) students, 20 percent of female students and 5 percent of male students reported experiencing sexual assault. Even more troubling is that only 28 percent of these sexual assaults were reported, and more than 50 percent of survivors did not report the event because they did not consider it “serious enough.”
What is apparent is that we need greater education and discussion about consent — in particular, affirmative consent, which moves the discussion on sexual encounters from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” Consent comes through verbal or physical “yes,” and if a partner is incapacitated because drugs or alcohol, consent is simply not possible.
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Although more than 800 campuses and a number of states have enacted affirmative consent policies, there are societal messages that affect students before they arrive on college campuses. Messages from home, peers and media greatly affect how young people regard and respect one another’s bodies and boundaries. Regrettably, the messages are mixed, and supposed role models in government, sports and media often posit women as sexual objects. This creates a void in leadership regarding what consent looks like.
Education and discussion on the significance of consent should be the central effort of DeVos’ focus on Title IX and sexual assault. Instead, providing equal time to survivors of sexual assault and representatives of organizations such as Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as promoting misogyny, casts a political veneer over an important issue — it appears to draw a “both sides” presentation when in fact, more work needs to be done to support survivors and build trust so students feel they will be supported. Yes, there have been instances of false accusations, such as the lacrosse scandal at Duke University and the University of Virginia/Rolling Stone cases. But again, these instances are exceedingly rare, and the underreporting of sexual assault deserves to be the major focus — not a platform for a political agenda advanced by some leaders who have labeled women accusing the president of sexual assault “fake victims.”
Instead of trying to score partisan political points, both Assistant Secretary Jackson and Secretary DeVos could have challenged rape culture, a misogynist system that objectifies women and normalizes assault, and broadened a dialogue about how we as a society discuss consent. The priority must be ensuring that we critique societal behaviors that objectify and devalue individuals, survivors of sexual assault are supported, and institutions earn their trust. This issue was one that the Department of Education leadership could have shown some much-needed expertise and empathy. Rather, clumsy apologies and loose command of facts rule the day.
Richard J. Reddick is the assistant vice president of research and policy and an associate professor of educational administration in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.