Redefining safe sex on campus

Not long ago, a young father sat next to me on an airplane.

He was traveling with his family, although they were sitting elsewhere. We started talking about our respective children. His eldest daughter was about 9 or 10 years old and he had a couple of younger children. My own daughters are out of college. In the course of our conversation, he told me that sending a daughter to college seemed a lot scarier than sending a son.

I told him that if he had children approaching college age these days, he would probably feel the opposite.

Sure, you naturally care more about a daughter’s physical safety, though that may reflect more cultural bias than reality. Certainly, there is much concern about sexual assault and other mistreatment of women on campuses across the country. But we know the basics of how to protect and defend against these attacks; we also know how to respond if something really terrible happens. You can advise a daughter on ways to stay safer, although whether you follow her advice is up to the daughter.

But what do you say to a child going to a campus where administrators are under pressure to be investigators, prosecutors, judges, and juries? Where those administrators are given the impossible mission of protecting the rights of both parties to an alleged assault while making sure that women receive more, different, or better justice than they can get from the police, prosecutors, and courts? real?

I think the answer is that boys (and girls too) arriving on college campuses today should be taught safer sex, and that means much more than using physical protection during the act. Of course, it means treating all potential partners with respect and sensitivity. Of course, it means understanding that “no means no.” But it also means understanding that when the issue is presented as “yes means yes,” the burden can be shifted to the defendant to somehow prove that the other party acquiesced in everything that happened.

Even if you had proof, even if you required all potential partners to submit a video statement that included your name, the date, and a list of all activities that you are about to begin by mutual consent, you or an organization you belonging can still be accused of something you didn’t do or didn’t realize you were doing when you were doing it. How, for example, can you know that a couple who is willing to participate in acts A, B and C does not want to participate in act D, if they don’t tell you? This can and certainly will be presented as a violation of the “yes means yes” requirements, regardless of practicalities or consequences.

Are false rape charges rare? So they tell us. But they happen. They have occurred repeatedly in circumstances as varied as the Tawana Brawley case in the 1980s and the Duke lacrosse case in the mid-2000s.

Joining these high-profile examples is a story that ran in Rolling Stone last fall, in which a University of Virginia student described an implausibly violent gang assault on a fraternity, an event that several journalists were only too keen to cover. assume that it really happened. The magazine issued a retraction in December when it became clear that elements of the source’s story did not hold up to scrutiny; Last weekend, a comprehensive report from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism examined the many journalistic failures that led the magazine to present the allegations as not just plausible, but true. (one)

The UVA fraternity where the alleged rape was alleged to have taken place has said it plans to file a lawsuit against Rolling Stone for defamation. And, perhaps ironically given that several of the journalists involved in the story blamed their mistakes on excessive deference to the source in question, many activists have suggested that the allegations will make it harder for actual survivors of campus sexual assault to seek justice. .

Journalists aren’t the only ones willing to buy such an extreme story. The original Rolling Stone article went viral when it was published, drawing 2.7 million views online. The article came amid a heated debate over how universities handle rape allegations, spurred by numerous federal investigations, a Columbia student who responded to what she saw as a judicial error with a high-profile performance art project. profile and a White House initiative with prominent sports and celebrity endorsements. Given the context, there was a large audience prepared to swallow all of Rolling Stone’s flawed journalism.

We are approaching an era in which cases of college sexual assault can become as much a fixture of hysteria as the kindergarten sexual assault mania of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Proposals are being raised that universities impose their own punishments, independent of the courts. A recent op-ed in The New York Times reviewed a campus assault the author reported in the 1990s, in which criminal charges against the man she accused of raping her were dismissed, but a university panel found him responsible. of the assault (although his punishment was limited to a reprimand via letter in his file). The author wrote: “The burden of proof in a criminal trial is often unattainable in typical sexual assault cases, where the assault occurs between people who know each other, in private places without witnesses, often with alcohol involved. [… ] The burden of proof on college campuses, typically framed as a preponderance of evidence, is more realistic.”(2)

In other words, the answer is not to improve the way the criminal justice system handles assaults on campus; the answer is to force universities to take the position of making up for any judicial error, preferably by expelling the accused student on weaker evidence than a court would require before imposing even a sentence of probation or community service, let alone time in the jail.

So if you, a young man, are charged during your senior year, you may be expelled from a school you have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in, after a process in which none of the standard due process rights, effective counsel, or crossed. -The examination of witnesses can be applied. Good luck transferring to a similarly prestigious campus, in the hope of at least completing your degree, in those circumstances.

Sexual assault is a vicious crime that demands, and receives, severe punishments. These include, in many cases, lifetime inclusion on sex offender registries. Such sentences must be met only with strict protections of the rights of the accused parties. Campuses are absolutely not equipped to provide such protections, just as they are not fully equipped to investigate and prosecute such crimes. If we want to remove any lingering stigma from being sexually assaulted (and I don’t know why anyone today would consider it stigmatizing), if we want victims to truly believe that no one sees them as responsible for what has happened. , we must begin by applying the same principles of law and journalism to sexual assault that we apply to any non-sexual physical assault that occurs in a public park or in an alley. Or a college dorm, for that matter.

In a less hysterical era, we would require universities to immediately report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement, just as we require teachers and doctors to report when there is evidence that a minor is the victim. But if the federal government requires campuses to establish a parallel court system, then everyone who steps foot on those campuses better be prepared to practice safe sex, with all the documentation they can muster.


1) Rolling Stone, “Rolling Stone and UVA: Report of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism”

2) The New York Times, “Sexually Assaulted at UVA”

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