It is only fitting that the Secretary of Education selected by a president who once advocated for the sexual assault of women would roll back protections for sexual assault survivors. Indeed, Betsy DeVos’ announcement that she would revoke Title IX protections for sexual assault survivors implemented by the Obama administration sends the message that women will not be protected during the Trump administration.
It is true that the implementation of Obama-era guidelines is not flawless, and civil rights advocates must be honest about their need for reform. The preponderance of evidence standard — generally thought of as just over 50 percent confidence that what was alleged took place, which is far below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in the criminal court system — dictated to universities has been of particular controversy, even though universities are not courtrooms, and sexual assault is unique in that evidence is extremely difficult to procure. The lack of cross-examination and discovery make adjudication more difficult for both parties. It is still unclear whether the right against self-incrimination for the accused should be recognized. Sometimes, the blunt wielding of these rules can lead to absurd consequences.
But the Obama-era guidelines, coupled with Joe Biden’s “It’s On Us” campaign, still did a lot of good for students. They placed the burden on schools to take sexual assault allegations seriously and to impart justice on their students; they actively worked to dispel victim-blaming and myths about women crying rape; they created an impetus for campuses to hire Title IX coordinators to deal directly with the issue; it introduced the concept of affirmative consent, a “yes means yes” policy which encouraged better communication; and they catalyzed campus activism on sexual assault. Biden’s personal involvement with the campaign — visiting colleges around the country, telling young men that sex without consent is rape — created a male role model for young men to act ethically.
Thus, although the adjudication process for campus sexual assault is imperfect, greater due process protections could be instituted without a wholesale rollback of the Title IX protections. With this rollback, much of the progress being made could be halted.
It is not a coincidence that, when it comes to campus sexual assault, President Donald Trump is suddenly interested in civil rights and due process. As Lucia Graves points out in The Guardian, “The sexually accused are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white (57 percent, according to RAINN), and presumably, entitled. In other words, they are Trump’s core constituency to a T.”
Yet another example of Trump’s attempts to seek protections for white men, in order to appeal to white identity politics, the move is also an attempt to further the narrative of white, male victimhood. Laura Dunn writes in the Washington Post, “DeVos has positioned herself as the patron saint of those who claim, preposterously, that students being falsely accused of rape is just as prevalent and just as important a problem as students being raped.” And while due process and civil rights should be ensured for everyone, DeVos’ position speaks to a false equivalency between white, male oppression and the oppression of other groups, an equivalency which Trump’s administration and base have repeatedly invoked.
Look no further than the Justice Department’s intentions to sue universities en masse for discriminating against white applicants in affirmative action admissions policies, while failing to devote resources to understanding the circumstances that created racial inequity to begin with. Yet, while Trump believes white college applicants deserve civil rights, he does not think the same for others; his campaign’s calls for police to manhandle suspects and his executive orders’ stripping due process from immigrants all signal that, when the affected parties are immigrants or suspects, the Trump administration is more than willing to overlook due process and civil rights.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, “Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.” Just like his repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s revocation of Obama-era guidelines on sexual assault is continued evidence of his desire to undercut the accomplishments of the Obama administration.
Instead of accomplishing real progress, the move is almost certainly devoid of the nuance required to make campus sexual assault proceedings truly just to both parties. It works to increase the already pervasive perception that women who accuse men of rape are liars, and will likely discourage reporting. It fails to recognize that in many adjudication settings, rapists still have an upper hand, due to stigma, stereotypes and privilege. It may depress the sexual assault awareness and prevention activism that many campuses have seen over the past few years. Most tragically, it fails the young sexual assault survivors for whom Title IX protections were a shining light of hope.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.