During my senior year of college, I spent many evenings in fraternity houses. I didn’t show up, like most did, to drink too much and dance badly. Instead, I was the ultimate buzz kill: As a rape crisis counselor, I was there to talk to fellow young men about how to end sexual assault on campus.
The University of Pennsylvania mandated sexual violence prevention workshops for members of the Greek organizations on campus, so it was no surprise that many of the fraternity brothers treated my presentation like one of their most boring lectures. Those who didn’t pretend that I was invisible typically eyed me with apprehension as I began my talks.
Why did I keep going back? Because despite the yawns, skepticism and class clown behavior I initially encountered, I was reminded with each session that many of the students in the room didn’t have the basic education about rape that I was there to offer. Often, they were truly curious about what constituted sexual assault. They may have at times been surprised or even incredulous to learn about the legal contours of rape and the definition of consent — but the point is, they learned. And I like to believe that at least a few of them behaved differently as a result.
I thought about these young men while listening to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s remarks this month at George Mason University. She criticized the Obama administration’s approach to handling campus sexual assault, including its suggestion in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that schools use a “preponderance of evidence” standard — the same one used for other student discipline matters and in civil trials, but looser than the one used in the criminal justice system — in evaluating sexual assault cases. She argued, despite courts’ rulings to the contrary, that this deprived students accused of rape of their due process rights. Even as she acknowledged the crisis of campus sexual violence, she gave equal if not more weight in her remarks to the plight of the accused, saying, “One rape is one too many. One assault is one too many,” but quickly adding, “One person denied due process is one too many.” On Friday, Ms. DeVos officially rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance and provided revised interim instructions for how colleges should investigate sexual assault.
If Ms. DeVos had been in my shoes, looking into the eyes of those fraternity brothers in my workshops, she’d know that one young man who doesn’t understand sexual assault is too many. She’d focus not only on what happens after accusations, but also on the education that is needed to stop sexual violence.
Let me be clear: Ignorance is never an excuse for rape. Men, who make up a vast majority of assailants for victims of all genders, are responsible for the violence they enact. That’s true even if they genuinely believe, thanks to messaging from pop culture and even our president, that they have the right to do whatever they want to women’s bodies. But education can help. If college-age men across the country are anything like those I spoke to, many of them have no idea that a woman cannot give legal consent if she’s incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. Many of them haven’t been told that a woman who says yes early in a sexual encounter can still say no later. They don’t understand that a woman’s clothing or her sexual past is irrelevant to whether she agrees to have sex. They don’t know that a woman isn’t required to physically fight them off to communicate that she’s not interested.
Resentful as some students in the workshops I facilitated may have been about attending my sessions, I feel confident that a vast majority of them did not want to be rapists. But they, and many of their male peers I spoke to individually, literally didn’t know what rape was. More than 20 years later, a lot of college students still don’t.
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