The university sexual assault overcorrection: How efforts to protect women have infringed on men’s c
1. An Accusation
Drew Sterrett couldn’t know that when his friend slipped into his bottom bunk late one night in March of his freshman year, she was setting off a series of events that would end his college education. It was 2012, and Sterrett was an engineering student at the University of Michigan.
The young woman, CB, lived down the hall. A group of students had been hanging out in the dorm on a Friday evening—there was drinking, but no one was incapacitated—when CB told Sterrett that her roommate had family members staying in their room and she needed a place to spend the night. Sterrett loaned her a shirt to sleep in and assumed she’d crash on the mat he and his roommate kept for visitors. Instead, CB came and lay down next to him on his bed. The two had made out in the past but had no serious romantic interest in each other.
They talked quietly, started kissing, and then things escalated, as they often do when two teenagers are in bed together. When it became clear they were going to have intercourse, CB asked Sterrett about a condom, and he retrieved one from a drawer. Their sex became so loud and went on for so long that Sterrett’s roommate, unable to sleep in the upper bunk, sent Sterrett a Facebook message around 3 a.m.: “Dude, you and [CB] are being abnoxtiously [sic] loud and inconsiderate, so expect to pay back in full tomorrow …”
The two finally finished and went to sleep. The next morning, Sterrett says CB told him that she wanted to keep their interlude private. He thought she was embarrassed that she’d had sex with a friend and agreed not to talk to others about it. They saw each other frequently in the dorm until the school year ended.
Sterrett was home in New York for the summer when he was contacted by a university official, Heather Cowan, program manager of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, and told to make himself available for a Skype interview with her and another administrator. No reason was given.
As the interview got under way, Sterrett realized that CB must have told Cowan something disturbing about their one-time assignation. Becoming concerned about the tenor of the questions, he asked the administrators if he should consult a lawyer. He says they told him that if he ended the interview in order to seek counsel that fact would be reported to the university and the investigation would continue without his input. He kept talking. He told Cowan that he and CB had had a consensual encounter while his roommate was only a few feet away. As the interview was coming to a close, Sterrett says the administrators told him this matter was confidential—though he’d still not been explicitly told what the matter was—and that he should not talk to anyone about it, especially not fellow students who might be witnesses on his behalf.
Later, Sterrett would consult a lawyer and file a lawsuit against the university alleging he’d been deprived of his constitutional right to due process. This account is drawn from the legal filings in that ongoing case. These include Sterrett’s case against the university, affidavits from witnesses sworn on Sterrett’s behalf, the university’s response, and a deposition of CB taken by Sterrett’s lawyer. (Through his lawyer, Sterrett declined to speak to me. A Michigan spokesman said the university cannot comment on a pending case. CB has remained anonymous in court filings. I contacted her lawyer, Joshua Sheffer, who sent the following statement: “While we strongly disagree with Plaintiff’s description of the night in question, we do not feel that it should be played out in the press.” It continued: “This lawsuit is between Plaintiff and the University of Michigan; my client wishes only to put this traumatic event behind her and move forward with her education and life.”)
Cowan told Sterrett over Skype that there would be restrictions placed on him when he returned to campus for his sophomore year. Sterrett and CB were part of a special program called the Michigan Research Community, and members lived together in a residence hall. Although Sterrett and CB had continued to live on the same floor until the end of the school year, and she hadn’t complained about his presence, Cowan told Sterrett that he would be removed from the dorm. He was also told that he could not be in the vicinity of CB, which meant he was in effect barred from entering the dorm, cutting him off from most of his friends.
The events that prompted the university to take these actions against Sterrett are detailed in an affidavit sworn on Sterrett’s behalf by LC, a friend of CB’s and her sophomore year roommate. LC stated that in July she received a call from an “emotionally upset” CB who explained that her mother had found her diary. LC recalled that CB explained that the diary “contained descriptions of romantic and sexual experiences, drug use, and drinking.” (CB confirmed the contents of the diary in her own deposition.) During the phone call, CB asked LC if she remembered the night CB had sex with Sterrett. LC didn’t, because CB had never mentioned it. Now CB told her, “I said no, no, and then I gave in.” Eventually, as described in CB’s deposition, CB’s mother called the university to report that CB would be making a complaint against Sterrett. CB’s mother drove her to campus, and CB met with Heather Cowan.
2. An Overcorrection
We are told that one of the most dangerous places for a young woman in America today is a college campus. As President Obama said at a White House event in September, where he announced a campaign to address campus violence, “An estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years—one in five.” (At an earlier White House event on the issue, the president declared of sexual violence, “It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.”) In recent weeks, Rolling Stone’s lurid account of a premeditated gang rape at the University of Virginia has made the issue of campus sexual violence front-page news. (The reporting and the allegations in the article have since been called into question, and Rolling Stone has issued a statement acknowledging that the magazine failed to properly investigate and corroborate the story.)
Sexual assault at colleges and universities is indeed a serious problem. The attention it’s receiving today—on campus, at the White House, in the media—is a direct result of the often callous and dismissive treatment of victims. For too long, women who were assaulted on campus and came forward were doubted or dismissed, and the men responsible were given a mild rebuke or none at all. Those who commit serious sexual crimes on campus must be held to account.
In recent years, young activists, many of them women angry about their treatment after reporting an assault, have created new organizations and networks in an effort to reform the way colleges handle sexual violence. They recognized they had a powerful weapon in that fight: Title IX, the federal law that protects against discrimination in education. Schools are legally required by that law to address sexual harassment and violence on campus, and these activists filed complaints with the federal government about what they describe as lax enforcement by schools. The current administration has taken up the cause—the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it as “a marquee issue for the Obama administration”—and praised these young women for spurring political action. “A new generation of student activists is effectively pressing for change,” read a statement this spring announcing new policies to address campus violence. The Department of Education has drafted new rules to address women’s safety, some of which have been enshrined into law by Congress, with more legislation likely on the way.