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Slate and campus sexual assault

Trigger warning: this post and the articles linked to in it discuss rape and sexual violence.

Emily Yoffe at Slate has written an article entitled 'The College Rape Overcorrection'. It contains some material which is genuinely striking and important for anyone who wants to talk about systems for handling rape allegations in universities. But - as you might expect from an article with that title and a teaser paragraph which begins "Sexual assault on campus is a serious problem. But ..." - that material is presented in a way which is harmful and incredibly irresponsible.

Start with how this article could and should have come across. The problems with college administrations' procedures for dealing with sexual assault claims that it talks about shouldn't be waved away. It's true that universities can't hand out convictions or criminal punishments, and that having a lower burden than 'beyond reasonable doubt' is acceptable. It's also true that victims of sexual violence need to be protected and that they shouldn't have to jump through traumatic and confrontational hoops in order to get that protection. But it's not acceptable to suspend someone from a university for four years, or make it functionally impossible for them to socialise with people who were and still are their friends, without a fair process that allows them to defend themselves.

Colleges appear to be implementing these kinds of systems in order to satisfy a series of federal government authorities that they are taking the problem of campus sexual assault seriously. If you pay attention to the facts of the case at the University of Michigan which Yoffe's piece centres on, you'll learn that as well as giving the alleged perpetrator minimal chance to mount a defence, the college's system produced a 'Summary of Witness Testimony' and then a final incident report which did not match or accurately incorporate the account of the victim. This is a story about colleges, largely interested in avoiding political and financial trouble, creating systems for dealing with sexual assault allegations which don't adequately protect the interests of the students who actually interact with them - victims and alleged perpetrators. That's a twist on a familiar story, but it's a twist which is important and new enough to be worth writing.

Instead, it's presented as a story about an 'overcorrection', a system which - far from continuing to fail both accusers and accused - has become so zealous and heroic in its defence of victims' rights that it's descended into a new type of injustice. The players in this story: legislators pushing affirmative consent rules, sociology professors with quixotic feminist agendas, and so on. That's a narrative that resonates all too closely with fantasies about misandrist feminists taking over university (and general) life. The point is not that we shouldn't say anything that suggests that narrative for fear of political incorrectness. It's that that view is wrong and enabling it to spread empowers people who, unlike Yoffe, don't think campus sexual assault is a serious problem and want to take apart important protections and support systems for its victims.

More than that, this article is written in a way which directly plays into pervasive and damaging myths about rape. Most obvious is the section entirely dedicated to disputing the number of rapes that occur in colleges, with little clear connection to the rest of the article's argument. In the course of giving examples to support her argument, Yoffe brings out details like these:
"Jane lost her virginity that night, and when she sobered up and realised what had happened, in distress she went to a faculty adviser ..." 
"A full year after the encounter, she brought a sexual assault charge against the young man, hoping to get him expelled."
You can see how these might seem like the kind of relevant facts that you should include in your journalistic account. But at some point in the process of writing and editing, somebody needs to recognise what highlighting them in a national magazine amounts to. The widespread assumptions that rape allegations are often motivated by regret about sex, or that a victim's failure to immediately tell friends or make an official complaint casts doubt on its truth, make the process of reporting a rape and going through the legal procedure and social ramifications (sometimes amplified by the media) which follow incredibly traumatic, shot through with fear and distrust. Making those assumptions seem valid, by elevating the public profile of two cases where they could be true in a way that makes it seem like they are, is not something any writer or editor should be able to do in good conscience.

That's not to mention the section Yoffe gives over to getting back on a hobby-horse about the connection of alcohol consumption and sexual assault. I'm not going to dive into that here. The short version is this: even if excessive drinking does make women more likely to be victims of sexual assault, putting a public focus on changing victim behaviour as a way of reducing sexual violence - given the world we live in and the stereotypes it has - is likely to have a range of harms to weigh against the balance of giving good advice. Giving that advice in private, to your children, might be a different story. (This is an important subtlety which Yoffe, whose main job at Slate is to write a personal advice column, is perhaps uniquely badly placed to appreciate.) Actually the simplistic dismissal of complex and ongoing debates is fairly characteristic of this piece. There is an extensive discussion, online and in print media, about affirmative consent rules and their merits and disadvantages. Yoffe says they are "convoluted' and "ridiculous" and should be done away with, and that's it.

There are important things said in this article. They are buried in layers of myth and stereotype which make the article on the whole awful. One of the worst things is that Slate - and at least some of its readership, from Twitter reactions - are embracing it as an example of the magazine's classic contrarianism. This piece peddles and enables rape myths and paints a picture of politically-correct college administrators, in the grip of extreme feminists, 'going too far' and hurting men. That's not, actually, an unpopular or contrarian view. But is an incorrect and very harmful one.