The Wall Street Journal is about as publicity stunt-y as The New York Times’ Style section in terms of publishing articles guaranteed to kick up a fuss. But the WSJ, being owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp (Fox News, etc.), leads with a conservative slant. This week’s case-in-point is an op-ed by lawyer Judith Grossman, whose son was accused of vaguely stated sexual misconduct by an ex-girlfriend at his college and subjected to a messy campus tribunal process.
You can read the entire piece here, but the summarized version is that her son was accused by an ex-girlfriend of “nonconsensual sex,” as Grossman puts it, “that supposedly occurred during the course of their relationship a few years earlier.” She then describes the “nightmare” her son and family endured through the college’s tribunal process. Her son was given written notice of the charges against him from the campus Title IX officer, listed in “a barrage of vague statements.” Writes Grossman, “The letter lacked even the most basic information about the acts alleged to have happened years before. Nor were the allegations supported by any evidence other than the word of the ex-girlfriend.” During the two-hour tribunal process, her son was grilled by the campus. Eventually the charges against him were dismissed — an outcome, Grossman implies, attributed to the fact he has a lawyer for a mother who was able to advise him on how to handle it.
The overall tone of the essay is My darling son was framed by some vengeful harpie ex-girlfriend and feminism is to blame! Am I surprised a mother would feel that way? No. But I am dismayed a woman who calls herself a feminist would be ignorant to the reality that one in four women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime and sexual assaults on campus are a particular shitshow. In 2010, a year-long study by the Center for Public Integrity reported that accusers are often found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults and those they accused “face little or no consequences for their acts.” The study fingered a lack of institutional support as devastating to the accusers, pointing out that they often drop out of school. “Administrators believe the sanctions commonly issued in the college judicial system provide a thoughtful and effective way to hold culpable students accountable, but victims and advocates say the punishment rarely fits the crime,” the study said. “Additional data suggests that, on many campuses, abusive students face little more than slaps on the wrist.”
To this end, the following section of Grossman’s op-ed — specifically how she tarnishes the way the college actually did right by the the accuser by holding her son, the accused, accountable for his alleged actions— is what particularly troubled me:
… There was no preliminary inquiry on the part of anyone at the school into these accusations about behavior alleged to have taken place a few years earlier, no consideration of the possibility that jealousy or revenge might be motivating a spurned young ex-lover to lash out. Worst of all, my son would not be afforded a presumption of innocence.
In fact, Title IX, that so-called guarantor of equality between the sexes on college campuses, and as applied by a recent directive from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, has obliterated the presumption of innocence that is so foundational to our traditions of justice. On today’s college campuses, neither “beyond a reasonable doubt,” nor even the lesser “by clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof is required to establish guilt of sexual misconduct.
These safeguards of due process have, by order of the federal government, been replaced by what is known as “a preponderance of the evidence.” What this means, in plain English, is that all my son’s accuser needed to establish before a campus tribunal is that the allegations were “more likely than not” to have occurred by a margin of proof that can be as slim as 50.1% to 49.9%.
Don’t misunderstand me — generally speaking, I agree with her that this process sounds dodgy (I will explain that more in depth in a minute). But I also find it an extremely problematic illustration of rape culture that from the get-go, Grossman fingers “jealousy and revenge … motivating a spurned young ex-lover” instead of considering the possibility that her child may actually have actually forced nonconsensual sex upon his accuser. Crazy idea, right?! Such arguments prey on the victim-blaming beliefs that spiteful women are going after innocent sons — a knee jerk reaction that feeds into the lie that women falsely accuse men of rape all the time. They don’t. The reality is that only two to eight percent of reported rapes are false. You can read a more in-depth piece about this subject over at Slate.
Grossman continually repeats that the alleged incident(s) happened “years” ago. I’m sorry, but is there a statute of limitations when sexual assault suddenly becomes A-OK? Has it ever occurred to Grossman that perhaps it took the accuser this amount of time to decide to come forward about the alleged abuse? Surely she’s aware that a majority (54 percent) of rapes go unreported to police. Not every single person, child or adult, who suffers sexual abuse processes what happened to them immediately and has the resources at their disposal to find help. Furthermore, we live in such a victim-blaming society that rape victims can never win when it comes to how and when they reported their assault. If the rape happened Monday night and she reports it Tuesday afternoon, people will ask why she didn’t report it on Tuesday morning.
To that same end, Grossman’s insistence upon “evidence,” seemingly physical evidence, is also grossly problematic — suggesting, perhaps, that she thinks real life is an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” where all victims are blood-stained and covered in bruises? Sexual assault does not need to involve physical force or injury in order to be assault. The FBI itself has acknowledged force is not necessary to define rape, as reflected in their 2012 decision to update what “rape” means. Why can’t Grossman?
Finally, Grossman’s piece ends with a potshots at “women’s rights” and feminism in general, as if eradicating rape is really a bad thing. She writes.
I fear that in the current climate the goal of “women’s rights,” with the compliance of politically motivated government policy and the tacit complicity of college administrators, runs the risk of grounding our most cherished institutions in a veritable snake pit of injustice—not unlike the very injustices the movement itself has for so long sought to correct. Unbridled feminist orthodoxy is no more the answer than are attitudes and policies that victimize the victim.
On the contrary, the fact these tribunals exist are a success of women’s rights, not a sign that uppity ladies have gone haywire. As the aforementioned Center For Public Integrity study discovered, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The reality is that victims are grossly underserved by our criminal justice system, in a large part due to attitudes from the rape culture that Grossman herself is participating in.
All this being said, I do actually appreciate how Judith Grossman’s piece underscores issues with leaving the investigation of criminal disciplinary matters in the hands of campus authorities. Mostly when I write about rape on college campuses, I write about it from the point-of-view of a young woman who has been assaulted by a fellow student (oftentimes under the influence of alcohol, oftentimes a college athlete) and then doubly assaulted by a feckless campus disciplinary committee that seems more invested in protecting the accused rapist and his athletic position within the school than in bringing the accuser justice. I’m only lightly touching on and glossing over these issues here in the interest of brevity, but it’s a systemic problem that campuses care more about hushing up misconduct —often doing so by discrediting the accuser’s mental state — so as not to bring the school negative press. For a longer, in-depth explanation of how a college mishandled a rape accusation, read Angie Epifano’s essay “An Account Of Sexual Assault At Amherst College.”
To that end (although not her intended end) Grossman’s piece illustrates how colleges administrators are not criminal justice experts and seem to bungle things about as often as, oh, actual criminal justice experts when it comes to rape. I’m looking at you, Steubenville and Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia.
Grossman’s son may well have been innocent. An op-ed written by the accused’s mother is not the appropriate forum to determine innocence or guilt. But it’s immensely troubling that her grief against her son’s college’s handling of the sexual assault accusation furthers victim-blaming and finds a convenient scapegoat in feminism on the pages of the Wall Street Journal.[Wall Street Journal] [The Center For Public Integrity: A Lack Of Consequence For Sexual Assault] [Slate] [RAINN.org] [Slate]
Original by Jessica Wakeman