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 OpEd 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.
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.
[Misogynist banners normalize campus rape culture. There’s nothing funny about that.]
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 this 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 column 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.
Christina Emba is a Washington Post opinions writer and editor.