02 May 2014

Sexual Assault: Can We Call It What It Is?

Yesterday, the federal Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities that it is investigating in connection with their handling of sexual assault complaints. The government is to determine whether the handling (or, actually, the nonhandling) of the allegations violates Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in institutions of higher education.

My alma mater is on the list, which neither surprises me nor particularly upsets me.

What upsets me is, as I have said before, the way our society views crimes against women. They are different from "real crimes," and lesser, somehow. For example, domestic violence is not the same thing as violence, apparently. Attack a man on the street, and you're charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, or something else quite serious. Attack a woman in her home and it's a "domestic incident." Among her remedies: she can get a restraining order - basically a piece of paper entitling her to complain if you come near her again.

And so it is with rape. Forcing someone to have sex without her consent is - should be - a very grave crime. It's a physical assault that is also humiliating, because it robs her of her physical integrity. And it puts her at high risk for all kinds of serious health consequences. It's the kind of thing that should be treated seriously, the way other attacks are: investigated by the police, resulting in an arrest and a public trial in a state-run criminal court.

But that's not what generally happens, at least not in the context of our institutions of higher education. Here's how it works. The woman knows exactly who her attacker is. If she is brave enough to do anything - if the humiliation of reporting the crime is not too much for her to bear - she seeks medical help, usually at the campus health center. The campus police - not the regular city police - are called. The matter is handled internally by a university standards board or by a dean. The attacker, even if found to have committed the crime as accused - is often allowed to remain on campus, maybe with some sort of academic or social sanctions. When I was a student, I knew a lot of women who were assaulted. I did not know a single man who was criminally prosecuted for rape by the state.

In the wake of the Department of Education's issuance of its list, a lot of people are upset, as if the way these things are handled is some kind of huge surprise to them. They are, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, shocked and appalled. Reform! they cry. Investigate! Prosecute!

But it's not that simple. Underneath all of this is a societal construct that violence and domestic violence are not the same thing. Rape and date rape and campus sexual assault are distinct crimes. In the case of campus sexual assault (a nice euphemism, no?), a boys-will-be-boys attitude prevails. "This guy is a promising athlete or student! Why should we ruin his life over a youthful indiscretion?" Leniency and secrecy must prevail so that he can grow up, become a CEO, live a prosperous life. The women he leaves in his wake are just collateral damage. They're something that got in his way.

When I was an undergraduate, at a traditionally men's college that had recently gone coed, I often heard something that I hear now in the context of "military sexual assault" (which, by the way, is also a nice euphemism for a horrible crime): if women weren't present, they wouldn't be attacked in such large numbers. The problem is the women; they're a distraction.

Well, I'm sorry if we're a distraction, but we're half of the world. When you get out of the military, when you graduate with your Ivy League degree, we will still be here. We will be in the board rooms, the graduate classrooms, and at the dinner tables. We are your mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, bosses, employees, and coworkers. We are people too. And we are not going anywhere.

Equality! they cry. But there won't be any equality until we reach a stage where we treat violence against a woman the same way we treat violence against any human being. Let's call a crime a crime, without resorting to diminutive euphemisms. When we do, we will finally be on the road to justice.


hbksloss said...

Hear, hear! Great piece, just posted it on my FB Wall. When will we, as a society as a society start valuing women and women's lives?

Justine Levine said...

I've never understood how universities can come down so clearly on violations of academic integrity, but that there are so many more shades of grey when it comes to violation of human rights. Since when do we value intellectual property over people's bodies? Or is it just because things like plagiarism are easier to prove? One the other hand, ideally, it's easier to convince a judicial committee about guilt, which doesn't require proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. I think one thing that would help everyone is better transparency about why and how the internal systems work the way they do. My university is also on the list, and I'm still too new to pass judgement on what I think will surface, if anything.