Let's Get a Few Things Straight About Sexual Assault on Campuses

By Katie Feifer

It's back to school time and at campuses across the country college students are getting "orientations" about sexual assault along with talks on alcohol and the computer systems. It seems that this year, more loudly than in the past, pundits and attorneys are weighing in about the "outrageousness" of the processes campuses are required to follow to pursue complaints of sexual assault. We find that many of these pieces are full of falsehoods and backwards thinking. It tends to make us feel that we're living in an Alice in Wonderland kind of world. One egregious example of getting it wrong appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently. Our friends at the Victim Rights Law Center responded with a letter to the editor, not published by WSJ.  We think it's worth hearing the response, so we're posting it here.

"Peter Berkowitz’s op-ed (“College Rape Accusations and the Presumption of Male Guilt,” Aug 20, 2011) is rife with misinformation. At the Victim Rights Law Center, a nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of rape and sexual assault victims; we have worked with hundreds of victims who are pursuing their education rights. We serve these victims every day and know all too well what happens in school disciplinary hearings.  We can assure Mr. Berkowitz that not only is there “no presumption of male guilt”, but rather the discrimination often runs in the exact opposite direction. Mr. Berkowitz cavalierly suggests that the hearings are biased against men, however, we have had fact-finders inquire about the preferred sexual positions of our victim-clients, their sexual orientations, their manner of dress and “could [she] demonstrate how [she] danced that night?” As if any of this is relevant to whether a victim was raped.  Of course, similar questions are never leveled at the accused.

Mr. Berkowitz is also terribly confused about the definition of due process. Under the law, due process is the right to notice and a fair hearing. Nothing less and nothing more. The April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter in no way diminishes or encourages schools to diminish the due process rights afforded to both parties. It is simply wrong to suggest otherwise. 

Ironically, it is Mr. Berkowitz who criticizes a process that helps ensure due process – the right to an appeal.  Education cases are governed by civil, not criminal, law. In any civil case, both parties have equal rights to pursue an appeal. The double jeopardy clause applies only to criminal prosecutions and the Dear Colleague letter does not pertain to criminal cases. If Mr. Berkowitz were familiar with how campus cases are routinely handled, he would know that many campuses and universities allow only the defendant – and not the complainant – to appeal the outcome. Some schools do not even inform the victim that an appeal has been filed or new “evidence” submitted, thereby denying the victim any opportunity to respond. 

As to whether the “accused should be able to question or cross-examine the accuser,” Mr. Berkowitz misses the mark by one important word – “directly.” The “Dear Colleague” letter strongly discourages schools from allowing the defendant to question or cross-examine the complainant directly. It in no way suggests that the defendant be prohibited from questioning the complainant. Rather, it recommends that questions be addressed to a neutral third party, so as to eliminate the potential for harassing or intimidating behavior.

Finally, Mr. Berkowitz once again confuses the civil and criminal laws when he criticizes the burden of proof required. Civil matters routinely require a “preponderance” showing, in contrast to the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Schools cannot hold a rapist or sex offender criminally liable for his acts. They do not incarcerate defendants, impose jail or prison time, or otherwise inhibit a defendant’s fundamental rights. 

Mr. Berkowitz complains that the preponderance standard allows the campus disciplinary board to become “judge and jury.” This is a routine practice in administrative proceedings throughout the United States. There are hearings everyday in state and federal agencies conducted in this manner with as high stakes. Are the standards and procedures employed in hearings that address legal issues such as the right safe housing, retirement benefits, or keeping ones job not good enough for college and university academic disciplinary hearing? We think they are. 

As victim attorneys, we do not ask that everyone agree with our perspective, deliver victim-centered services or put victims first. We do not ask that colleges and universities favor one party over the other. What we demand is fairness. We demand that both parties be allowed their due process – and rather than mask irrelevant and degrading questions about sexual positions, sexual orientation and the color of the victim’s underwear – we demand that campuses and universities provide balanced and equitable responses to both parties. In other words, we expect them to follow the law.

Sincerely,

Stacy Malone, Esq., Executive Director, and the attorneys of the Victim Rights Law Center- Boston, MA and Portland, OR"

Giving "Ask Amy" a Little Advice When it Comes to Rape

By Katie Feifer

Amy Dickinson, a nationally syndicated advice columnist wrote on November 27, 2009 responding to a request for advice from “Victim in Virginia,” a young female trying to determine whether she had been raped at a fraternity party. We were deeply dismayed by Ms. Dickinson’s response.

Ms. Dickinson displays an all-too-common ignorance of the dynamics of non-stranger sexual assault, the law and the appropriate ways to advise a survivor of such violence. Because such misperceptions have an effect not only on victims but also on public safety, and because Ms. Dickinson’s widely heard voice is an important one, we are compelled to make several key points.

Ms. Dickinson’s apparent disdain for the judgment of the advice seeker (“Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment”) is as painful a display of victim blaming as we have seen in some time.  The first response to this clearly struggling young woman should have been one of empathy, not shame or blame. Even if consuming alcohol, agreeing to spend time alone with a peer, or attending a fraternity party are indicators of “bad judgment,” rape is not a justifiable consequence. Neither do these choices justify shifting responsibility for this crime from the assailant to the victim.  Insinuating otherwise is not only punishing the young woman who is at the center of this case but is problematic from a public education standpoint.

Despite the fact that the advice seeker clearly indicated that she said “no” and was coerced by the alleged perpetrator, Dickinson suggests that what was by legal standards a rape may have in fact been merely a misunderstanding fueled by alcohol consumption. In suggesting that the consumption of alcohol is a great neutralizer, one that morally equates the sexual violence victim and the perpetrator, Dickinson ignores current law and decades of rape education efforts. She also ignores this fundamental truth: alcohol lowers inhibitions that might otherwise prevent behavior that is nevertheless consistent with the desire of the inebriated person (in this case, that of the alleged perpetrator). It does not unleash a heretofore non-existent urge to violate a resisting woman who has protested her attacker’s advances.

Dickinson’s imprecise use of language is equally troubling. She conflates “unwise” sexual conduct with “unwanted” sexual conduct, implying that a victim might choose (because of her attendance at a party and the voluntary consumption of alcohol) to “engage” in either or both. In fact, one does not “engage” in unwanted sexual conduct anymore than one “engages” in being robbed at knife point. Describing sexual violence as a contract negotiation gone wrong sends the wrong message to victims and the broader community, fueling social attitudes that make the world less safe and less just. Indeed, when over 80% of the rapes committed in the United States involve people who know each other – and many of those rapes involve alcohol – the symbolic and practical impact of Ms. Dickinson’s ill-considered advice is potentially quite large.

Most troubling to us was Ms. Dickinson’s assertion that the alleged rapist should be involved in discussions with his victim “in order to determine what happened.” One problematic aspect of this particular piece of advice is the presumption that this young woman cannot know what happened to her – only the accused perpetrator can tell her. From a legal standpoint, such advice is ill conceived and irresponsible: one does not direct the victim of a crime to confront the perpetrator of that crime after the fact, and on her own time.  This is what the legal system is for. From an ethical standpoint, advising a victim to reach out to her alleged perpetrator is cruel, unreasonable, and likely to be traumatic (as well as ineffective). It is also, for the victim, potentially unsafe.

There is a wealth of important information available on rape and sexual abuse — information that we hope might inform future “Ask Amy” columns. Indeed the most helpful and accurate aspect of Ms. Dickinson’s answer was the information that she included from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Now we encourage her to learn more. The website of one of our Chicago-based CounterQuo partners, The Voices and Faces Project (www.voicesandfaces.org), includes the names, faces, and stories of women and girls who have lived through rape and abuse.  Information about the legal response to rape and sexual assault is available from the Victim Rights Law Center (www.victimrights.org). We hope that after reading the testimony of victims with experiences not unlike the “Victim in Virginia,” Ms. Dickinson will be less likely to blame those who have lived through sexual violence for the damage that has been done to them.

Civil Legal Rights and Remedies for Rape Victims

By Katie Feifer

When most of us think about the crime of rape, we think about getting the  "bad guy"[1] and prosecuting him criminally. We think about the victim getting "justice" and perhaps even feeling empowered if her assailant receives legal sanction or punishment. However, unlike most other crimes, we all too often question and scrutinize the victim's actions leading up to the attack rather than the perpetrator's actions. We ask, “Why was she in his room?” or, “Was she giving him mixed signals?” when we should be asking, “Why did he keep buying her drinks?” or, “Why did he corner her in a room away from her friends?”

Then, when it comes to "justice" we focus all attention on the rights of perpetrator (justifiably so, given the important constitutional rights afforded those who are accused of crimes), but what about the needs of the victim?

In both cases our focus and devotion of energy and resources is skewed. There are many instances where a victim of sexual violence experiences social and legal problems as a direct result of the violence done to her. These can include problems with school or work, physical safety, housing, economic stability or immigration status. It is arguable that we ought to focus as much if not more on providing victims with civil legal remedies for problems and injustices they face after they are sexually assaulted than punishing the perpetrators of these crimes. For some thoughts and perspective on the case for civil legal remedies for rape survivors, read "The Second Wave: An Agenda for the Next Thirty Years of Rape Law Reform."

[1] Disclaimer: not all perpetrators are men and certainly not all victims are women, but for ease the author will use gendered pronouns. This is in no way meant to diminish the pain and harm inflicted on male, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered victims of sexual violence.