By Clementine Ford
As Australia reckons with its own culture of abuse and harassment on university residential college campuses, the battle to target sexual assault perpetrated by and against students continues in America’s tertiary institutions. In a widely panned interview aired recently on 60 Minutes, the US Secretary for Education Betsy DeVos announced that “one sexual assault [on campus] is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many.”
DeVos isn’t wrong. False allegations of sexual assault are inexcusable. Not only do they severely impact the life of the person falsely accused, they make it more difficult for survivors of sexual assault to come forward. The problem is that DeVos is using the asymmetrical comparison of sexual assault versus false allegations to justify her attacks on Title IX, an important federal law created specifically to prevent sexual discrimination in American universities and one that oversees how reports of sexual assault are investigated. In reality, false rape allegations account for roughly 2-6 percent of all criminal reports, a statistic that accords almost exactly with false reports made for numerous other crimes. But unlike car theft and home invasions, incidents of rape go mostly unreported which means that false allegations are actually comparatively significantly lower.
DeVos appears completely ignorant of this reality though; during this same 60 Minutes interview, she was asked if she was suggesting that the number of false reports was the same as the number of actual assaults. “I don’t know,” she replied.
But it doesn’t matter that DeVos has no idea what she’s talking about, particularly when it comes to the statistics on sexual assault. By asserting the stance of symmetrical correlation as she has, she not only affirms the widely held (and grossly incorrect) view that sexual assault and false allegations are roughly on par, she also makes campuses even less hospitable for the students who still struggle to have their reports taken seriously.
There are more insidious actions at work here. DeVos (who was appointed by Trump to the role of Education Secretary, despite having no apparent experience in the field) launched her attack back in September 2017 on new guidelines introduced to Title IX by the Obama administration. She consulted in part with men’s rights groups, including the National Coalition for Men which has been accused in the past of publishing the names and photographs of sexual assault survivors on social media.
As Randi Weingarten wrote for Think shortly after in October, “As a result of this reversal of Title IX protections, undergraduates who are sexually assaulted will once again face a second assault in the form of victim-blaming and intimidation, for no reason other than to shield perpetrators and bolster the arguments of rape deniers who have long minimised and excused these violent crimes.”
It’s important to challenge victim blaming rhetoric on issues of campus assault not just because perpetuating it makes things less safe for those more likely to be victimised, but because interrupting a pattern of sexual violence actually stops predators.
It is not beneficial to anyone to pretend that sexual assault is something only Evil Monsters do. Sexual assault is a crime that is made easier to perpetrate by the culture of silence, victim blaming, entitlement and sexism that surrounds it. And contrary to what most people want to believe, most rapists are able to move through the world without being detected or even suspected.
In 2009, Stephanie McWhorter conducted a longitudinal study of sexual behaviours with a sample of 1146 newly enlisted men in the US Navy, beginning from the age of 14. Of this sample, 144 men (13 per cent) admitted to attempting or completing a rape. Within this group of self admitted rapists, 71 per cent admitted to being repeat offenders with an average of 6.36 assaults each. Together, this group were responsible for just over 800 rapes. The vast majority were perpetrated against a victim who was intoxicated while a quarter involved force. Overall, one sixth of these rapes involved a combination of the two.
These provide shocking insights into the behaviour of rapists whose crimes not only go unpunished but who also manage to move into industries that, ironically, are predicated on the idea of “protecting” a nation. But McWhorter’s most terrifying finding was this: rapists are most likely to commit their first assault when they’re still in adolescence. So if we can interrupt the pattern of sexual violence by addressing some of these difficult truths, we might actually be able to lower the number of adolescents who become sexual predators
It is imperative that we start to collectively address this reality. Rape is not a crime that exists on the fringes of society. Most perpetrators of rape and sexual assault target people known to them. Rather than being part of an hysterical feminist campaign to destroy men’s lives as DeVos and her MRA supporters want to believe, on-campus sexual assault is real. False allegations aren’t non-existent, but they are statistically insignificant in comparison to the number of actual sex crimes being perpetrated. Treating them as if they’re two halves of the same coin isn’t just ignorant – it’s also dangerous. Be assured that it will create more victims, while simultaneously allowing newly formed predators to believe they’ve done nothing wrong.
Clementine Ford is a best-selling author and feminist commentator. Her forthcoming book, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ will be out in October 2018.