Cam­pus rape gets wrapped up in law

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY CHRIS­TINE EMBA chris­tine.emba@wash­post.com Chris­tine Emba is a Post opin­ions writer and editor.

In 2013, the Of­fice for Civil Rights re­ceived 32 com­plaints about Ti­tle IX vi­o­la­tions in­volv­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence against col­lege stu­dents. The next year there were 102. By spring 2017, 319 in­ves­ti­ga­tions were pend­ing. Au­thor Vanessa Grigo­ri­adis views this spike as a sign of suc­cess, not over­reach. In her re­mark­able new book “Blurred Lines: Re­think­ing Sex, Power and Con­sent on Cam­pus,” the ris­ing num­bers are a sign that even on the most in­dif­fer­ent cam­puses, aware­ness of sex­ual as­sault is fi­nally tak­ing hold.

Nat­u­rally, oth­ers dis­agree. Chief among them is Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos, who mourn­fully cited the same num­bers as ev­i­dence of a “failed sys­tem” in a speech this month at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity. She has vowed to re­work and maybe re­place the Obama administration’s 2011 guid­ance on sex­ual as­sault, cit­ing due-process fail­ings and pro­ce­dural mis­steps.

Au­tumn dis­cus­sions of col­lege sex­ual as­sault are as pre­dictable as the leaves fall­ing from the trees, but this year the con­ver­sa­tion has taken an un­usu­ally le­gal turn. Are the num­bers too high or too low? Are the law’s levers work­ing as they should? Are the as­sault sta­tis­tics — that 1-in-5 num­ber, or maybe 1-in-7 — cor­rect or overblown? These are good and use­ful ques­tions to ask, and they are pleas­ingly straight­for­ward ones for bu­reau­crats and op-ed writ­ers to tackle. But mak­ing them the fo­cus of dis­cus­sion misses the point.

Here’s the ac­tu­ally cen­tral prob­lem: Sex­ual as­sault is still hap­pen­ing on cam­pus. A lot of it. Too much of it. And be­cause it’s a unique crime — of­ten un­wit­nessed, tan­gled in con­fu­sion, freighted with so­cial bag­gage — even the most per­fectly cal­i­brated le­gal so­lu­tion can never fully solve it. Fixing the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem will take changes of mind, not just changes of pol­icy.

Our cur­rent pol­icy, much of it stem­ming from the fem­i­nist cam­pus or­ga­niz­ing that cul­mi­nated in 2011’s “Dear Col­league” let­ter, is part of that change of mind. As the past 60 years of civil rights rev­o­lu­tions have shown, chang­ing the law is of­ten the first step to­ward chang­ing at­ti­tudes, and then the cul­ture at large.

The re­newed fo­cus on Ti­tle IX woke us to the fact that cam­pus sex­ual as­sault is an on­go­ing scourge, not a se­cret. It re­minded young women and men of their rights and made it more fea­si­ble to pur­sue them. The new sex­ual as­sault spotlight is chang­ing our think­ing about con­sent, blame and re­spon­si­bil­ity, a shift that shouldn’t be dis­missed.

And even at — per­haps es­pe­cially at — their most puni­tive, re­cent poli­cies around sex­ual as­sault have changed be­hav­ior for the bet­ter.

Af­ter two Bos­ton Univer­sity hockey play­ers were ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault in the mid-2010s (and en­dured the Ti­tle IX scru­tiny that came from it), their team­mates made some shifts. “We’d go out to bars and go home our­selves,” one told Grigo­ri­adis, whose hun­dreds of col­lege stu­dent in­ter­views took place in the wake of in­creased Ti­tle IX en­force­ment. “We pretty much stopped tak­ing girls home, and within a se­mes­ter, all of us got steady girl­friends.”

For all the fail­ures of our cur­rent sys­tem, that is the kind of out­come we want. And now that we’ve seen it, we should be think­ing of ways to repli­cate it. Fi­ness­ing reg­u­la­tion is part of the process, but the more im­por­tant work will be to ad­dress the deeply rooted cul­tural norms — around gen­der roles, col­lege par­ty­ing and sex­u­al­ity writ large — that have made cam­pus sex­ual as­sault so per­va­sive.

But we’re los­ing the plot in­stead. Our con­ver­sa­tion has become an end­less le­gal de­bate about post-in­ci­dent pro­ce­dure. Is the stan­dard of ev­i­dence too low? Too high? How many Ti­tle IX of­fi­cers can fit on the head of a pin? Should we pay them? How much?

Yes, it’s worth­while to de­bate the right paths to jus­tice for vic­tims and the ac­cused. But in spend­ing all our time do­ing so, we’re grow­ing dis­tant from the real con­cerns.

A poignant re­minder of this dis­tance was pub­lished last week. A col­lege rape sur­vivor sent a let­ter to New York Times colum­nist Bret Stephens af­ter he wrote about Betsy DeVos and Ti­tle IX. Her crit­i­cism was that his ar­ti­cle fo­cused not on the re­al­ity of cam­pus sex­ual as­sault and the real so­lu­tions to the prob­lem, but on the ab­strac­tions of law, le­gal meth­ods and stan­dards of doubt.

“So here I am. I was raped. He got away with it, be­cause I didn’t know enough to do ev­ery­thing right and be­cause I was a ‘bad victim.’ I had been drink­ing. I had no wit­nesses. There was noth­ing the law could do for me,” she says.

There’s a lot to un­pack there, but it’s worth not­ing that the cul­tural con­text is what comes up first, and what has re­mained top of mind. Find­ing the per­fect pro­ce­dural path­way would not have stopped this woman’s all-too-com­mon as­sault — nor will it soothe her pain to­day.

When it comes to cam­pus sex­ual as­sault, it’s clear that le­gal ques­tions aren’t the only ones that need to be ad­dressed. So let’s make sure we talk about more than just the law.

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