Sexual assault on campus: Asking the tough questions

09.07.17

I’m almost hesitant to share this piece from The Atlantic because I don’t want to send the wrong message. Sexual assault is a huge problem on college and university campuses, and in general I’m strongly in favour of policies designed to believe victims when they come forward and to stamp out assault and toxic rape culture.

But… even an accusation of assault can ruin someone’s life. And sacrificing due process on an altar of doing the right thing isn’t the answer, either.

On too many campuses, a new attitude about due process—and the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty—has taken hold, one that echoes the infamous logic of Edwin Meese, who served in the Reagan administration as attorney general, in his argument against the Miranda warning. “The thing is,” Meese said, “you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That’s contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.”

Let me be clear: In the overwhelming majority of cases of campus sexual assault, the problem is that the victim is dismissed, disparaged or just plain not believed. Far, far, far too many assailants still get off scot-free or with a slap on the wrist. This is especially (though not exclusively) true when the assailant is a white male and/or the victim is a female person of colour.

Still, the Atlantic has done a good job with this series so far of delving into how complicated these cases can be. So I’m posting this, because I do think it’s a balanced, nuanced article that is worth a read. In our social media era, someone’s reputation can be thoroughly destroyed even before they are proven guilty of any crime, and that’s a big problem.

In an ideal world, the justice system would function much better for sexual assault victims, and there wouldn’t be any need for these sorts of campus policies. But we don’t live in that world. So some of these policies — separating a victim from their alleged assailant, not forcing them to attend classes or live in dorms or attend social events together, not allowing accused assailants to attack their victims’ sexual histories or reputations — exist for very good reasons.

Still, though, in a just and moral society, the idea that a few innocent people would be acceptable collateral damage of a policy designed for the greater good is a profoundly troubling one.

There aren’t any easy answers here. But there are some good questions that we should all be asking ourselves.

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