The White House and Department of Education have gone full court press because, as announced through a star-studded video, we have a big problem.
Whether it is a big problem is hard to say, even though the video takes it as a given. The just-released report of the White House task force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault begins by saying so, and simultaneously saying that they need to begin a study because, well, they actually have no clue whether it’s a big problem or not.
Why We Need to Act
One in five women is sexually assaulted in college. Most often, it’s by someone she knows – and also most often, she does not report what happened. Many survivors are left feeling isolated, ashamed or to blame. Although it happens less often, men, too, are victims of these crimes.
Whenever numbers are used, coupled with the claim that they’re unreported, it raises a red flag. If they’re unreported, then how do you know what the numbers are? Well, the report doesn’t let such details stymie its claims.
Identifying the Problem: Campus Climate Surveys
The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it – and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that.
That first sentence is a doozy. The first step in “solving a problem” isn’t naming it. As for knowing the extent of it, most rational thinkers would seek to know if there is a problem before solving it or naming it. Not this task force.
And before one can ascertain whether a problem exists, it would seem like a really good idea to define the issues at hand in a way that is comprehensible so that any attempt at an empirical analysis will have some modicum of validity. The video provides the mantra:
If she doesn’t consent, or she can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault, it’s a crime, it’s wrong.
On the surface, this has much appeal. It’s reiterated in the task force report:
The message of the PSA is simple: if she doesn’t consent – or can’t consent – it’s a crime. And if you see it happening, help her, don’t blame her, speak up.
And we’re back to the old question, what constitutes consent and, even more problematic, what does “can’t consent” mean? As happens whenever these difficult questions are asked, advocates argue that it’s clear and easy, pandering to public ignorance and superficiality. Indeed, this shift is all about turning public superficiality against itself, as their point is to turn the tide away from old notions of personal responsibility toward an extremely protective view of women where criminal culpability is presumed, and presumed only against males.
The basic scenario is two college kids in a bar, drinking. Both impaired, but not so much so that they can’t engage in a conversation or walk out on their own steam. They mutually decide to hook up, and do so. This is rape, for which the male of the pair is guilty because the female, being intoxicated (as is the male), is incapable of consent. Why not the other way around? Well, because.
But certainly this irrational scenario would be rejected by any rational thinking educational institution disciplinary board, who would immediately recognize the asymmetry of the matter and its utter irrationality, right? Not so fast. As Hans Bader explains:
However well-meaning they may be, the Obama administration’s guidance and task force recommendations yesterday on campus sexual harassment and rape contain an insidious attack on cross-examination (as KC Johnson discussed at Minding the Campus.) As the Task Force Report notes (pg. 19), “this new guidance clarifies that: . . . the parties should not be allowed to personally cross-examine each other.” Similarly, the guidance itself says (pg. 31): “OCR strongly discourages a school from allowing the parties to personally question or cross-examine each other during a hearing on alleged sexual violence.”
The Obama administration’s guidance also overreaches in demanding (pg. 25) that “The school must use a preponderance-of-the-evidence . . . standard in any Title IX proceedings, including any fact-finding and hearings,” rather than a higher standard.
Why? Aren’t you paying attention? We have a big problem. Despite the absence of empirical evidence that there is a problem at all, and despite the absence of meaningfully defined wrongs, the government compels a special reduction in the burden of proof exclusively for allegations of rape and sexual assault, combined with a prohibition on the ability to test or challenge claims by cross-examination.
See what they’ve done here?
This is where the epithets start flying, that anyone questioning the “big problem” is smeared as a misogynist and rape apologist. Anecdotes are offered to prove that it’s pervasive, under the heading of another phrase that has avoided definition, “rape culture.”
Even the description of the alleged victim has morphed into “rape survivor,” stealing the language of those who overcame cancer (which, obviously, had the potential to kill a person and thus came by the word “survivor” legitimately), to imbue the wrong with a life and death gravitas. While “victim” remains a problem, as it is only deserved after the determination that a wrong has occurred, it’s been tossed in the junk heap of rhetoric in favor of more impassioned language.
As with other trending causes, like revenge porn, myopic appeals to emotion obscure both reasoned analysis and thoughtful discussion. The rush to end the “big problem” blinds many to the other “big problem,” that innocents are sacrificed in the process. The crusaders don’t particularly care, because they are so dedicated to eradicating problems that they believe it worth the sacrifice.
Only when someone finds themselves on the south side of passion does the reality that the toxic combination of overheated rhetoric, poorly defined wrongs and undermined due process rights begin to matter.
So is the task force right that we have a big problem? Well, it certainly looks that way, except it isn’t the problem they think it is. They are the problem.