Emily Yoffe Deserves an Award

Emily Yoffe of Slate deserves an award for this piece. She writes:

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. (emphasis mine) “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.

Unfortunately, under the worthy mandate of protecting victims of sexual assault, procedures are being put in place at colleges that presume the guilt of the accused. Colleges, encouraged by federal officials, are instituting solutions to sexual violence against women that abrogate the civil rights of men. Schools that hold hearings to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct allow the accuser and the accused to be accompanied by legal counsel. But as Judith Shulevitz noted in the New Republic in October, many schools ban lawyers from speaking to their clients (only notes can be passed). During these proceedings, the two parties are not supposed to question or cross examine each other, a prohibition recommended by the federal government in order to protect the accuser. And by federal requirement, students can be found guilty under the lowest standard of proof: preponderance of the evidence, meaning just a 51 percent certainty is all that’s needed for a finding that can permanently alter the life of the accused.

Her conclusion that the federal government has overreached by injecting the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into the fray makes one suspect she meant to submit this piece to National Review or The Federalist.

Anyone who follows the issue knows that feminists tend to freak out whenever someone suggests that alcohol plays a significant role in sexual assault, and that it is simply prudent to advise college women against drinking heavily. Consider that an innovative solution to creeps who spike drinks – nail polish that changes color to detect date rape drugs – was met with angry condemnation from the sect of feminists who see any focus on the female’s behavior as “blaming the victim.” Is it any wonder then that Yoffe encountered hostility when she offered a similar perspective on alcohol’s role in sexual assault?

It’s a surprisingly loaded subject, given the widely acknowledged prevalence of drinking on American campuses. Last year, I wrote about drinking and sexual assault in a Slate piece titled, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” I said that binge drinking was bad for everyone but that it presented a particular danger for young women because it made them more vulnerable to sexual assault—I described sober predators who specifically targeted intoxicated women. I was widely denounced for “victim-blaming.” This year, I was disinvited to speak at a West Coast college after board members of a student organization that had invited me decided my presence would make student victims “feel unsafe.”

The fact that Yoffe, a feminist in good stead, was harassed and marginalized by members of her own tribe for daring to suggest that alcohol plays a role in sexual assault is hilarious for its commonplace banality: this is just how RadFems roll. And to her tremendous credit, Yoffe has decided that truth and objectivity are more important than “the cause.”

And the bravery it must require to dispassionately debunk the absurd and pernicious myth of “one in five” and even to take King Obama to task for it, is sure to consign this brave woman to the Jonathan Gruber Hall of The Banished, aka the ninth circle of progressive Hell. Yoffe again:

It is exceedingly difficult to get a numerical handle on a crime that is usually committed in private and the victims of which—all the studies agree—frequently decline to report. A further complication is that because researchers are asking about intimate subjects, there is no consensus on the best way to phrase sensitive questions in order to get the most accurate answers. A 2008 National Institute of Justice paper on campus sexual assault explained some of the challenges: “Unfortunately, researchers have been unable to determine the precise incidence of sexual assault on American campuses because the incidence found depends on how the questions are worded and the context of the survey.” Take the National Crime Victimization Survey, the nationally representative sample conducted by the federal government to find rates of reported and unreported crime. For the years 1995 to 2011, as the University of Colorado Denver’s Rennison explained to me, it found that an estimated 0.8 percent of noncollege females age 18-24 revealed that they were victims of threatened, attempted, or completed rape/sexual assault. Of the college females that age during that same time period, approximately 0.6 percent reported they experienced such attempted or completed crime.

That finding diverges wildly from the notion that one in five women college women will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. That’s the number most often used to suggest there is overwhelming sexual violence on America’s college campuses. It comes from a 2007 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, called the Campus Sexual Assault Study, or CSA. (I cited it last year in a story on campus drinking and sexual assault.) The study asked 5,466 female college students at two public universities, one in the Midwest and one in the South, to answer an online survey about their experiences with sexual assault. The survey defined sexual assault as everything from nonconsensual sexual intercourse to such unwanted activities as “forced kissing,” “fondling,” and “rubbing up against you in a sexual way, even if it is over your clothes.”


No one disputes that only a percentage of sexual assaults get reported, but the studies that have tried to capture the incidence of unreported rape are miles apart. As Christopher Krebs observed, “Some [surveys] I think create high numbers that are difficult to defend. Some create artificially low numbers that are impossible to defend.” We do have hard numbers on actual reports of sexual assault on campus thanks to the Clery Act, the federal law that requires colleges to report their crime rates. But even these figures are controversial. Minuscule sexual assault numbers have long been a consistent feature of Clery Act reporting. Victim advocates say administrators deliberately suppress their numbers in order to make the schools look safer. (Unsurprisingly, schools deny this.) In July, the Washington Post published the Clery number for 2012: There were just over 3,900 forcible sexual offenses, with most schools reporting single or low double-digit numbers. (Under the Clery Act a “forcible sexual offense” does not require the use of actual physical force, it can simply be an act against someone’s will. Offenses include everything from rape to fondling.) Given the approximately 12 million female college students, that’s a reported sexual assault rate of 0.03 percent.

Reported sexual assaults have been rising on campus in recent years, at a time when other campus crime is declining. (The nation as a whole has experienced a dramatic drop in all violent crime over the past few decades, including sexual assault, which is down more than 60 percent since 1995.) (emphasis mine) The rise of reporting on campus sexual assault is generally described by security experts as a function of a greater willingness on the part of women to make complaints, not an increase in incidence. Despite reports of “soaring” sexual assault rates on campus, the raw numbers remain low. At the University of Chicago, the jump from 2011 to 2013 was 83 percent: an increase from six reports to 11, which represents 0.4 percent of the university’s undergraduate women. Carnegie Mellon went up 220 percent, from five cases to 16, or 0.6 percent of the university’s undergraduate women. President Obama has asserted that only about 12 percent of sexual assault victims make a report to authorities. If he is correct, and we extrapolate from the Clery numbers, that would suggest there were 32,500 assaults in 2012, reported and not, or a 0.27 percent incidence.

The encouraging thing about this piece is that it gives the rational and objective among us a rebuttal to the charge that feminism is a wholly owned subsidiary of the cultural Marxist left who seek only the radical upheaval of the dreaded patriarchy. People like Jessica Velenti and Amanda Marcotte are toxic to their own movement, yet they enjoy heightened visibility and influence because they are maniacal in their zeal to paint all women as perpetual victims-in-waiting. Yoffe (who again, is a feminist) seems to view the representation of bogus rape statistics on college campus as detrimental to her idea of feminism. There is just no way to marry the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and the radical feminist left with the actual data. The simple fact is that there is categorically not an “epidemic” or “crisis” of sexual assault on campus. In this light, one would think a celebration is in order, as sexual assault has decreased by 60% since 1995. But we never hear that statistic and instead are given sermons about our obligation to drop everything and address this ongoing crisis of existential proportions. Another way to say it is that those pushing the “one in five” meme are more interested in the narrative than the truth. Many radicals are unabashed about this fact (see Zerlina Maxwell’s weekend Washington Post op-ed where she insists that “[w]e should always believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. Even if Jackie fabricated her account, UVA should have taken her word for it until they could have proved otherwise”).

I suspect the noble feminists have had enough and on the heels of the Rolling Stone debacle are reclaiming the rational parts of feminism from the lunatics, such as University of Michigan’s Heather Cowan, head of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, whose portrayal in Yoffe’s piece can be interpreted as the type of misandrist social justice warrior that has given such an ugly sheen to feminism. Whatever else one might speculate of the social crusader’s motives in tilting the investigation heavily against the accused, it cannot be disputed that Ms. Cowan ignored prudence and traditional conceptions of due process in delivering a judgment against Drew Sterrett, an unwilling stand-in for the patriarchy. To wit:

On Nov. 30, Sterrett received Cowan’s final “Sexual Misconduct Investigation Report.” His lawsuit states that the final report failed to take note of anything he had written in his rebuttal. The final report was longer than Cowan’s previous one, and included further allegations that either CB herself did not corroborate or appeared unsupported by the available evidence. For example, it stated: “The Complainant framed the events in question as a sexual assault to
 witnesses the day following the event.” In her deposition, CB acknowledged that she didn’t do that, that in fact she’d never used the words “sexual assault” to describe what happened. The report said that Sterrett’s roommate was asleep during the entire sexual encounter. This was contradicted by the time-stamped Facebook message complaining that he was being kept awake.

The report also said that Sterrett had confessed to his roommate that he’d had a nonconsensual encounter with CB. When Cowan interviewed the roommate—who says she never told him the purpose of her investigation—he had mentioned that Sterrett said he regretted the encounter with CB. In Cowan’s report, that statement is described as a confession of sexual violation. But as the roommate clarified in his affidavit, Sterrett was not expressing “that he had done anything morally or legally or ethically wrong.” He was expressing regret for sleeping with someone in their group of friends.

The final report came to this conclusion: “[I]t is determined that the Respondent engaged in sexual intercourse with the Complainant without her consent and that that activity is so severe as to create a hostile environment.” His punishment was that he was suspended from college until July 2016—after CB graduated. In order for the university to consider reinstating him, he would have to agree that he had engaged in sexual misconduct. Whether or not he returned, the finding would stay on his permanent record. Sterrett’s lawsuit says a university official acknowledged to him that these sanctions would “limit his educational, employment and career opportunities.”

This is utterly damning. What is especially maddening though, is that this rubric for addressing sexual assault on campus comes directly from the federal government. And because the Obama federal government is surely inhabited by the largest contingent of social justice warrior bureaucrats ever, you’ll be shocked to learn that the emphasis on catering to the victim only while treating the accused as guilty until proven innocent did not materialize in a vacuum. Washington is setting the parameters for all public universities on how to deal with sexual assault accusations, and the parameters are not pretty:

Much of what’s happening on campuses today regarding the handling of sexual assault is due to the rise of a small, once-obscure arm of the federal government. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights dictates to colleges the procedures they must follow in regard to campus sexual complaints. It also examines schools for violations of Title IX, the law that forbids discrimination in education on the basis of sex. In recent years, OCR has used Title IX, best known for tackling imbalances in athletics, as a tool to address sexual violence. When OCR issues findings against a school, if the school declines to admit wrongdoing, the office has the power, as yet unexercised, to essentially shut the school down.

In 2011, OCR released what’s come to be known as the “Dear Colleague” letter. It called for new procedures to be put in place for handling sexual assault allegations at colleges and universities receiving federal funds (virtually all of them). The federal office had to act, it said, because “the likelihood that [female students] will be assaulted by the time they graduate is significant.” It asserted the process should be equitable and impartial. But it laid out procedures that privilege the rights of victims over those of the accused. It recommended schools provide “comprehensive, holistic victim services including medical, counseling and academic support services, such as tutoring” for the accuser, without describing any services that should be available to help the accused navigate a pervasively adversarial process. If a school allowed the accused to appeal a verdict of responsibility for sexual misconduct, then an accuser also got to appeal if the accused was found not responsible. This provision meant someone accused of a campus sexual assault could find himself sitting through a second tribunal on the same charge.

Among the most significant changes described by the Dear Colleague letter was the requirement that schools lower the standard by which they judge whether a student is responsible for sexual assault. (There is no uniform definition of sexual assault on campus. Because these are civil, not criminal proceedings, what constitutes sexual misconduct can vary widely from campus to campus.) Colleges were told to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard when evaluating whether a student was to be found responsible for an allegation. This is the lowest evidentiary standard, only requiring a smidge more than 50 percent certainty. Because the punishment for such infractions can be severe—from suspension to expulsion—many schools had previously used the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, a significantly higher burden of proof, though still below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal proceedings. (The University of Michigan, in its legal motion to dismiss Drew Sterrett’s case, specifically noted the findings against Sterrett met the preponderance of evidence standard.)

At the end of her Pulitzer-worthy piece, Yoffe sounds like a libertarian when she suggests that the federal government would probably be well advised to disentangle itself from this arena altogether, and to allow the litigation of rape and sexual assault to return to the jurisdiction of actual, you know, law enforcement, rather than leaving it up to a bunch of naive academic administrators who, based on the same “preponderance of evidence” standard they wish to co-opt for their kangaroo court tribunals, are more likely to resemble the Heather Cowans and Danielle Dirks of the world and therefore should be the very last people recruited into anything having to do with actual justice.

But I would of course take Yoffe’s recommendation regarding the reform of the DOE’s Civil Rights division to its logical terminus: eliminate the department entirely. Progressives have zero illusions that a federal monopoly on education is good for the masses. They like it because it consolidates power in a massive bureaucracy of which will be staffed almost exclusively by fellow travellers and SJWs. And that massive bureaucracy, as happy to be willfully duped by ridiculous statistics and flawed studies as Rolling Stone was to buy the oh-so-perfect narrative condemning the patriarchical white supremacy endemic to all fraternity life, is responsible for the muddied, inchoate farce that is campus sexual politics today.

Give Emily Yoffe a medal. She deserves it for this wonderful exhibition of political bravery, as it is undoubtedly going to ostracize her among the radicals for whom narrative trumps truth.