In all high school health and self-defense classes, one unit is particularly delicate and uncomfortable for students to go through — the one that discusses sexual harassment and assault. Students are taught what to do to defend themselves, physically and emotionally, and how to handle a situation in which someone violates them on the most intimate level. They are taught the victim always comes first and that it’s never their fault. But in reality, not all instances of sexual misconduct are handled this way.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is spearheading potential new policies on college sexual misconduct which could have a drastic impact on how universities, including Loyola, handle sexual assault allegations on campus. The proposed rules, published by The New York Times, would increase the rights of the accused rather than the victim and will limit the availability for justice when such heinous acts are committed on college campuses.
While it’s fair to make sure that no one is falsely accused of anything and that the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” should prevail, the proposed regulations will make it easier to sweep cases of sexual assault under the rug and let perpetrators get away without facing consequences.
One major change the proposed new regulations will bring is a narrower definition of “sexual harassment.” In the policies brought up by the Obama administration, sexual harassment was defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” including, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” This definition makes it clear any unwanted encounters of a sexual nature are wrong and shouldn’t be taken lightly or ignored.
The new rules would define sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” The use of the word “severe” on its own creates a bias against victims, making it so they won’t be taken seriously unless administrators think that whatever happened to them was bad enough to address or investigate.
Sexual harassment’s severity can’t be determined by a third party. The only person who’ll ever truly understand exactly how severe sexual harassment is is the victim.
Another notable change DeVos’ potential new policy will bring is that, now, colleges and universities will only be legally responsible for addressing formal complaints and only investigating incidents that happen on campus or within school-sanctioned programs.
This means if a victim told someone other than “an official who has the authority to institute corrective measures” about an episode of sexual harassment or assault, such as an resident assistant (RA) or a coach, the university wouldn’t legally be held accountable for investigating. Moreover, if the incident occurred at an off-campus event, schools wouldn’t have to get involved with that either. This would also make it increasingly easier for perpetrators to go after victims at “off-campus” events, such as fraternity parties, which have been in the spotlight for sexual misconduct in the past.
According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, about two thirds of rape victims tell another person of the incident, however this is most often a friend, and not even a family member or let alone a college official.
If before someone could confide in their RA or a faculty member they were close to about a possible sexual assault, the new policy would likely make it more difficult to get justice for the survivor as the report would only matter if it went through a formal official.
The new guidelines will also allow for the accused to cross examine the accuser —and vice versa — and would continue to use DeVos’ required policy of mediation, which the Obama administration deemed “inappropriate.”
For many survivors, just seeing the perpetrator is too traumatic to bear, let alone sitting down to to a cross examination.
This could also be potentially dangerous for the accuser, as the alleged perpetrator would now be able to see the evidence against them. If the perpetrator threatens the victim and the victim uses these threats as evidence, they could go after the victim again and possibly cause even more harm.
Implementing these policies will be like taking a step back in the fight against sexual assault on college campuses, which has been a prevalent issue for so many years. Giving more rights to alleged perpetrators can bring back the times of victim blaming, which, as we have been taught over and over again, is wrong.
Innocent until proven guilty is a fair standard to uphold, but this doesn’t mean creating situations in which any form of sexual harassment is taken lightly or ignored.
No matter what kind of act it is, sexual harassment is never appropriate and sexual assault is never legal or okay to conceal for the benefit of an institution.