Sexual misconduct on campus is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Female students are trying to gain attention for the issue by protesting. Recently they were even supported by no less a person than Lady GaGa. Many stories on the topic have been published in the media as well and the tone of voice that is used seems to reflect a great feeling of moral outrage. The media are writing about a rape culture, an awful epidemic and state that colleges must stop sacrificing the safety of students. Also, countless articles with photo’s and names of accused men, who are still suspects, are being put online. The media’s eagerness to write sensational stories on sexual assault on campus is illustrated by a shocking article on a gang rape at the University of Virginia published by the Rolling Stone on November 19, 2014. Later that year, the article turned out to be ungrounded.
What will be the consequences of this media hysteria and how will the political response to it turn out for the accused men?
The political response
As a result of the massive media attention, sexual assault on campus has become a popular issue among politicians who seem to be using it for political gain. Last month Hillary Clinton promised to combat sexual assault on campus if she was elected president. According to president Obama the ‘It’s on us campaign' he recently introduced is badly needed since ‘our society still does not sufficiently value women.’ Also, the federal government has threatened to withhold funds for universities that do not introduce ‘appropriate’ sexual harassment policies. As a result, universities like Harvard are feeling the pressure to come up with harsh policies. Apparently, last summer governors felt like joining the hype as well by signing into law legislation like the ‘Enough is enough’ and the ‘Yes means yes’ legislation. But perhaps the most striking bill has been proposed by D.C. councilwoman Anita Bonds. She proposed the 'Scarlet letter bill’ that would require colleges to permanently and prominently mark the academic transcripts of students who are convicted of sexual assault or try to withdraw from school while under investigation.
Of course, sexual assault on campus is a serious problem that can dramatically impact the lives of victims and their relatives. However, the way it is currently combated is a recipe for injustice. University disciplinary systems seem to be increasingly used as a substitute for rape trials. However, these systems often lack the most basic rules of due process, like ensuring an adequate representation for the person accused and the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the accusations. As a result, the chance of getting falsely convicted is considerable. Therefore, the well-known case of Drew Sterrett is probably just the tip of the iceberg. But unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. If Bonds’ proposal is going to be enacted into law, not only will students judged guilty be punished, but also students who try to withdraw from school while under investigation. To make this clear: these people have not (yet) been proven guilty(!).
Many accused students have sued their universities and alleged that they have been discriminated against because they are men. Most of them did not succeed, because judges state that these measures are written to be gender neutral. But despite the fact that they were not specifically aimed at men, these measures obviously mostly affect male students. The issue of sexual assault on campus has been put on the agenda by highly educated women, who are demanding harsh policies. But demanding harsh measures is actually rather easy when being comforted by the thought that you will probably never be affected by them yourself, since the chance of becoming a victim of a false accusation or wrongful conviction as a woman is very small. This might also partially explain why research shows that most women think a person committing sexual assault and getting away with it is more unfair than an innocent person getting kicked out of college. Unsurprisingly, most men think an innocent person getting kicked out is more unfair.
A difficult truth
By defending the rights of (former) minority groups, we should not lose sight of the rights of all other citizens. A situation where a certain group of people start demanding harsh policies for another group of people is a dangerous one, in which the government should act extremely carefully. Sadly, the government chooses to do the opposite by taking the hysteria one step further. This is yet another example of modern risk society demanding the government to reduce an unavoidable risk to zero. It would have been brave if politicians had stood up and explained that a risk like this cannot be reduced to zero, because in a free society we do not follow people into their bedrooms to check out whether they are asking permission from their partners to have intercourse. Instead, under the pressure of the media and the electorate, politicians are introducing far-reaching measures that can destroy lives. These harsh measures and strong words distract the attention from the difficult truth that sexual assault simply cannot be completely prevented, unless the USA turns into a police state.