The year of campus sexual assault that wasn't By Ashe Schow
This was supposed to be the year that everyone banded together to end campus sexual assault by any means necessary — even if it meant improperly branding young men across the country as rapists.
The focus on sexual assault in 2014, which began in January when President Obama announced a task force to combat the issue on college campuses, can be no coincidence. The “war on women” narrative worked quite well for President Obama and Democrats in 2012, and the 2014 midterms were expected to be challenging for the party. Combine that with the fact that young, unmarried women overwhelmingly voted for Democrats two years ago and it becomes clear why there was such an intense focus on the issue.
In April, the task force released its recommendations for colleges and universities, claiming that “one in five women is sexually assaulted in college.” That claim, based on a Justice Department study of just two universities that had a low response rate, was splashed in headlines across the country — thus beginning a media meltdown akin to the McMartin Preschool child sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s.
Shortly after the task force’s recommendations cited that statistic, American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers and Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler each took it apart. But the desire for action persisted, and it wasn’t until solutions to the supposed epidemic were proposed that people really started to notice just how dangerous the hype had become.
It started in July when eight U.S. senators introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which included a list of instructions for how schools should handle sexual assault but included no due process rights for students accused. At the end of September, California passed its “yes means yes” law, which defined consent so narrowly as to make nearly all sexual activity illegal unless no one reported it as such.
Criticism of that legislation, as well as tales of students railroaded by campus kangaroo courts and growing numbers of young men suing their universities for denying them due process, turned the tables on radical activists who determined that convicting more young men, regardless of innocence, was the best way to eradicate sexual assault.
Even though Democrats won female voters in the midterms, it wasn’t enough to claim victory for the party or for the “war on women” narrative.
Following Democrat losses at the polls, the remaining narrative on campus sexual assault revolved around the inability of universities to handle felonies. No matter how lofty its goals, a campus disciplinary hearing cannot be an effective place to adjudicate sexual assault. For the accusers, the best they could hope for was that the accused would be expelled, meaning he would still be walking the streets free to prey on others. For those wrongly accused based on the account of one person without any corroborating evidence or due process, the situation would be detrimental to their future and their mental health.
Then came salvation for proponents of the sexual assault pandemic: A Rolling Stone story so perfectly illuminating rape culture that it read like the script for an after-school special. A woman, Jackie, was brutally gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation at the University of Virginia. When she called her friends to help her, they seemed more concerned with their social status than the health of their friend. When she turned to her university, administrators showed little emotion and did nothing to bring her justice.
Activists rallied around the story, seemingly gleeful that they had a tale to cite as representative of what was happening on campuses across the country, and anxious to impose draconian measures to alleviate the problem. Of course, a few observers pointed out that the solution being proposed to combat sexual assault wouldn’t do much help to Jackie, especially if, as was thought at the time, the university didn’t seem interested in helping her. The best she could have hoped for under these new policies was for the gang-rapists to be kicked off campus.
The story did not turn out to be as advertised. Jackie, who told Rolling Stone she had a date the night she was allegedly gang raped, made up the story about the man who supposedly took her to the frat party — even creating fake cellphone numbers and sending her friends pictures of an old high school classmate, according to three friends who said they rushed to her aid the night of the alleged attack. That night, her friends recalled, Jackie said she had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of five men. By the time the story made it into Rolling Stone, she claimed she had been gang-raped by seven men.
Activists quickly tried to shift the narrative, claiming that the accuracy of Jackie’s story didn’t matter and that sexual assault really was as big a problem as they insisted. Anyone who disagreed was called a “rape apologist.”
Then came another blow: The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report showing that one in 41 women were raped or sexually assaulted while attending college, not one in five. Everyone agrees that one is too many, but some also believe that one false accusation is too many as well. Others do not, claiming that false accusations are rare (based on decades old studies or anecdotes that don’t take into account what is now being considered sexual assault). The implication being that the falsely accused don’t matter.
So, what does this mean for 2015? Next year the focus probably will continue to be on due process rights for the accused, especially given the growing number of lawsuits against universities by accused students that could move forward or be settled. And with more people realizing just how damaging the responses have been to the mythical statistic that 20 percent of women will be raped during their college years, policies may change.