Chances are, you have heard of Title IX. If you competed in college athletics, went to college while raising a child, received student health insurance or simply attended a college or university, you have probably benefitted from it as well. Title IX has slowly begun to be dismantled by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
In February, she rescinded the protections that Title IX provided for transgender students. This month, protections for sexual assault survivors are in her line of sight. On Thursday, Sept. 7, to an invitation-only crowd at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, DeVos announced her plan to review Title IX’s sexual assault guidelines that were put in place under the Obama administration.
The guidelines, known as the “Dear Colleague Letter,” made it clear that it was each university’s responsibility to prevent sexual assault and that even one instance of sexual assault constitutes a hostile environment. DeVos announced that she plans to launch a “notice-and-comment” process which would entail the Department of Education reviewing comments it receives from the public and deciding the best possible action. There has been no word as of yet on when this process will start or how it will be implemented.
If this sounds like a harmless process where the voice of the people will win out and justice for survivors will prevail, do not be so sure. In May, DeVos met with “Men’s Rights Activists” who, on their website, label all women “false accusers.” She has also stated that Title IX protections are unfair to both survivors and those who have been “falsely accused.” In her speech to George Mason, she declared that “One rape is one too many, one assault is one too many, one aggressive act of harassment is one too many, one person denied due process is one too many.” This might seem like a positive statement and that her crusade to dismantle or “review” Title IX is just a byproduct of her quest for justice. However, in this statement, she gives being the victim of a “false accusation” (or being denied “due process”) the same weight as being a survivor of sexual assault. It positions false rape accusations as a problem of society, a society in which 80% of college sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
There is no “rape-accusation culture” in America. The percentage of “unfounded” reports (of the assaults that are actually reported to the police) is somewhere between 2 and 10 percent, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. However, to be categorized as unfounded, the report has to be found false, baseless, unsubstantiated or recanted. This means if there is not enough evidence, the victim takes back the accusation (even if they do so under threat or coercion), or if the police do not believe the reported incident meets “the element of the crime,” the accusation is deemed unfounded or false. This means that the 2-10 percent number from earlier may, in actuality, be much lower.
Meanwhile, there is a rape culture in this country and throughout the world. Victims of all genders are blamed for their own assault. They are questioned; they are disbelieved. They often suffer in silence with the physical, emotional and psychological effects of their trauma because they think no one will believe them, and sadly, in many ways, they are right. Rapists, on the other hand, convicted or accused (especially cisgender men) can go on to lead productive lives. They can continue on to graduate college, win Oscars, play for their team and even become president of the United States. To confer the same status to those who have been “falsely accused” as those who have survived sexual assault or harassment is outrageous and offensive. But sadly, from this administration, it is not all that surprising.
However, lawmakers and activists across the country will not let Title IX go down without a fight. Twenty-nine senators signed a letter to DeVos urging her to keep the current guidelines in place. Activists and assault survivors have also been speaking out, specifically about how the “revision” or revocation of the 2011 guidelines could affect the lives of other survivors.
Some are saying this is a giant step (or many steps) back. Handling of campus sexual assault is already far from perfect. Enhancing the rights of the accused and possibly decreasing the rights of the victims is not the way to improve it. Many activists are taken aback by DeVos’ false equivalency between rape victims and those accused of rape. They are not hopeful that her handling of this matter will be anything but detrimental to survivors, especially considering that her family has donated at least $25,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that provides, among other things, legal support to those accused of sexual assault.
Maybe someone should tell DeVos that one donation to an organization that supports changing the standard of evidence for campus rape investigations, as well as holding many other troubling views on sexual assault, is one donation too many.