In 2011, and again in 2014, President Barack Obama made key maneuvers to address growing calls from rape survivors and activists for more justice in college sexual assault cases.
His administration’s policy changes to Title IX, the policy that governs gender equality issues in the U.S. education system, urged colleges to investigate assault claims and gave them more freedom to act against accused students. Namely, it allowed for schools to act based on the “preponderance of the evidence,” rather than the higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” It also recommended that schools open their own investigations even in cases where law enforcement was involved.
Given that college sexual assaults are widely underreported, these fine-print changes were designed to usher in more transparency and accountability for victims, while also acknowledging how police, law and the courts continue to fail sexual assault victims. Even if the accused never saw a prison sentence, these guidelines helped schools act so that it could prevent a likely victim from, say, constantly running into their attacker on campus.
But in September 2017, not long after her contentious appointment as Secretary of Education by tie-breaking vote, Betsy DeVos announced she would cut down those Obama-era guidelines as quickly as possible. And after several holdups from state lawsuits, her new guidelines went live 10 days ago.
It’s not surprising that DeVos, a lifelong Republican and Donald Trump power donor, made overturning Obama’s Title IX guidelines a top agenda item when she took office. But the route she took is the most predictably irresponsible and politicized one possible, painting a picture that feels closer to parody than mere metaphor.
DeVos’ administration claimed it was meeting with experts and victim advocates to improve the way colleges litigated allegations of sexual assault. But as a report from The Nation details, what actually happened is that DeVos courted a squadron of organizations that believe false rape accusations are the real epidemic on college campus.
These groups have little to no history for advocating for assault victims or even broader educational issues. Rather, they look like the pet projects of ideological individuals who get off on ridiculing rape victims and have lots of right-wing cash to blow. DeVos and her acolytes decided to give a giant middle finger to every nonprofit and advocate working to reduce sexual assaults on America’s campuses. Instead, a self-described “fighter for the grassroots” ended up becoming a puppet of MRA chuds.
A series of emails leaked to The Nation show how DeVos and her right-hand woman, attorney Candace Jackson, met with the National Coalition for Men Carolinas (NCFMC), Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE). They’ve long spewed false data and poorly contextualized anecdotes while claiming that Title IX stacks the deck against men (apparently ignoring the glaring fact that one in five women report being the victim of sexual assault while in college).
Jackson was routinely DeVos’ point woman on the issue; she even told the New York Times that “90 percent of [assault accusations] fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’” At the same time, advocates for women survivors of campus rape found meetings with Jackson to go nowhere. If her name rings a bell, it’s because Jackson was the one who arranged for Bill Clinton’s assault accusers to line up on Fox News, while also claiming that the women with allegations against Donald Trump were “fake victims.”
DeVos has been no better. Time and again, she’s spewed completely inaccurate information about Title IX, lied to the Senate about her involvement in her mother’s anti-gay foundation and cited false data in an argument for charter schools and anti-union action. And in this case, her bowing to MRA logic has led to legitimately damaging changes. It’s not progress that her guidelines allow a rapist’s lawyer to grill the victim in a cross-examination — an act that victim advocates say re-traumatizes people and discourages reporting. It’s not progress that schools can’t investigate incidents that happen off-campus, or that smaller schools will now have fewer resources and agency to support victims.
In the U.S., a huge proportion of victims are attacked between the age of 18 and 24, making college an especially sensitive institution to address. The fact remains that campus sexual assault impacts a disproportionately huge number of women, trans and queer people. In a majority of cases, the victim is incapacitated, leaving them with little recourse after the fact. No wonder underreporting is rampant — people don’t expect justice, but rather merely more hurt.
Given that context, it’s even more disturbing to see how DeVos and her underlings aligned the Department of Education’s policy with groups that traffic in the moral gray area and claim that rape accusations are just drunken escapades. One of the groups even hosts a “Campus Rape Hoax” Facebook page. It’s the most predictable, toxic claim that a rapist and their allies give. So of course our head of education is vibing with it. Isn’t that the most Trumpian quality of all?
Thankfully, many schools have already codified stronger rules on sexual assault, and it’s likely that, if he wins in November, a Joe Biden administration could overturn many of DeVos’ changes. But DeVos has revealed how even a fundamental issue like education and student safety can become deeply, irreversibly partisan. Whether it’s escalating policing in schools or punishing trans kids, DeVos has made it her job to smash every policy viewed as “progressive,” even if nonpartisan educators are screaming for her not to do it.
Her attitude toward the thorny, tragic issue of campus rape and assault is simply the clearest instance of her turning her back on data, expertise and the voices of real victims in favor of rhetoric and personal ideology. In the process, she’s become a queen of men’s rights activists, championing their toxic illusions instead of the students she’s been entrusted with.