(HRW) – Eighty percent of female university students who have been sexually assaulted do not report it. I am one of them. Now, I fear that the US Department of Education will make it even harder for survivors like me to come forward.
During my freshman spring at Dartmouth College, I ran into a man I had only met once at a social gathering. Afterwards, he led me to his room to continue a conversation, but then became aggressive. He repeatedly ignored my calls to stop, and I became numb as I lost control of my body. Because there were no witnesses, and I took days to process the event, reporting it to police and taking him to court seemed hopeless. I feared social stigma, reprisal, and academic repercussions from the hours needed to report. He graduated that spring.
Earlier that year, my 18-year-old classmate was raped by a man who entered her room while she was asleep. She notified the police and I watched as she withstood weeks of fierce and skeptical cross-examination by a famous attorney. The trial, which included character witness testimony focused on the fact that she had previously drank alcohol and invited overnight guests, resulted in a not guilty verdict. Her attacker was cleared of seven charges of rape and finished his degree. My classmate transferred to another university.
The lesson my friends and I learned was this – stay silent, or be victimized further. The process of reporting an assault can retraumatize a survivor and the system is often stacked against victims in a variety of ways, as Human Rights Watch researchers found in a 2014 study of the police’s handling of sexual assault cases in Washington, DC.
Properly enforced legislation like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, can help stop violence against women. While Title IX is known for opening up athletic opportunities for female students, it also requires federally funded educational institutions to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. Implementation has been patchy, but Obama-era guidance elaborated schools’ obligations and marked a new era of increased scrutiny and enforcement.
But in September, the Department of Education issued a letter rescinding this guidance. Candice Jackson, then the department’s acting head of civil rights said, 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations either, “fall into the category of, ‘we were both drunk,’” or, “we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” Jackson later apologized for this dangerous misrepresentation, but the Trump administration has yet to give us any reason to have faith in its intentions. They also said police are better equipped to handle campus rape. But the truth is that police often fail – and even re-traumatize – women who come forward to report sexual assault.