In September 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she and her department believed the Obama-era guidelines on handling sexual assault on college campuses went too far in regards of accused sexual abusers.
The investigations of sexual assaults fall under the Title IX federal law, which protects individuals based on sex in education environments, including sports and other activities.
What are the new guidelines?
The “Dear Colleague” letter was issued in 2011 by the Obama administration and gave guidelines to universities in the handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The Obama-era guidelines instructed universities to use the lowest standard of proof when deciding whether a student was responsible for sexual assault. But Betsy DeVos claimed that “one person denied due process is one too many,” and the guidelines were officially scrapped in late September.
The Education Department now says that universities do not have to adhere to the lowest standard of proof, and instead, must raise it to a standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” Supposedly, this is to avoid wrongfully incriminating the accused and to protect their rights and privacy. What it really means, however, is that sexual assault victims, who oftentimes have a hard enough time receiving justice and help, will have an even steeper uphill battle.To add insult to injury, DeVos met with groups who strive to give even more privilege and leeway to rapists and sexual abusers at the expense of women’s safety and health: “men’s rights” groups, including The National Coalition for Men . The NCFM claims to be politically neutral, but is notorious for victim-shaming, attacking feminism, and using delegitimizing phrases such as “fake abuse victims.”
How do these guidelines contribute to rape culture?
The rollback of the old guidelines, the enforcement of the new guidelines, and DeVos’s willingness to speak and work with men’s rights activists are both a reflection of the sickening rape-culture in America and a perpetuation of it. The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network reports that out of 1,000 rapes, 994 abusers walk free, and only 310 incidents are ever reported to police.
Victims (most oftentimes women) are blamed for their assaults; others criticize what they were wearing, how much they had to drink, or how they weren’t using enough “common sense” in the situation. Victim-blaming is insidious, working in the favor of the accused and in the favor of men in general. It especially works in the favor of white men, who tend to receive more lenient sentences, if they are convicted at all.
What about universities’ blatant disregard of the Obama-era guidelines?
Of course, the Obama-era guidelines may not have been perfect, or at least not perfectly enforceable. Universities still manage to mishandle cases of rape allegations, and many schools try to sweep sexual assaults under the rug to avoid outrage from students, parents, and the general population. It’s no secret that schools like Baylor University have a disturbing history of putting athletes before sexual assault victims. Sports bring in money and prospective students; rape allegations damage a school’s reputation.
Some victims have even voiced support for bypassing the university’s system of reviewing sexual assault cases in favor of going straight to local police departments. So, the issue is not that the initial guidelines were not good tools that offered protection to sexual harassment and violence; rather, the issue is that some universities are more interested in protecting their images than they are advocating for sexual assault victims.
Instead of getting rid of the Obama-era guidelines all together, the Education Department should have restructured it to more adequately benefit victims, not the accused. The new guidelines are not a solution. They are a perpetuation of male privilege and a refusal to take women’s experiences seriously. The guidelines will make it even harder to find someone responsible for rape or sexual harassment, and they will degrade, discourage, and demonize assault victims.