Columns » Gene Lyons

Sex on campus

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Look, the Great Campus Rape Crisis was mainly hype all along. What Vice President Joe Biden described as an epidemic of sexual violence sweeping American college campuses in 2011 was vastly overstated. If people actually believed that 20 percent of college girls ended up being raped or sexually assaulted — as activists claimed — then they'd quit sending their daughters.

Instead, what's happened on too many campuses has been a kind of psychosexual panic akin to the "recovered memory" episodes of the 1980s — such as the infamous McMartin preschool trial in Los Angeles, and the fantastic allegations of orgiastic rape and murder in Olympia, Wash., described in Lawrence Wright's terrific book "Remembering Satan."

This is in no way to minimize rape, a vile crime deserving heavy prison time. Nor even boorish drunken carousing often winked at by college authorities even as Title IX administrators on the same campuses conduct Star Chamber sex investigations against students accorded none of the due process rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

It's not a criminal matter, you see. Merely one's educational and professional future that can be at stake.

Somebody changes her mind after a one-night-stand and a young man may as well pack up and go home. That, or prepare himself for months in virtual exile, banned from anywhere on campus frequented by the "survivor" of this misbegotten tryst, while being interrogated by an administrator serving as one-size-fits-all investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury.

There is no right to remain silent. Refusal to testify against oneself can result in expulsion. No cross-examining one's accuser, either. It's thought too traumatic. Anything an accused student does say can be used against him at a criminal trial.

The standard of guilt is the "preponderance of evidence," i.e. 51 percent. Were they alone together in his dorm room? OK, then he raped her.

I'm sorry; that does not sound like America.

If you think that's too strong, check out the excellent series of investigative articles by The Atlantic's Emily Yoffe. A careful, even scholarly, reporter, Yoffe describes an upside-down world where the weaker the evidence of sexual transgression in too many instances, the stronger the finding of guilt.

Indeed, things on campus had gotten so out of hand that Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has even taken time out from her busy schedule of attacking public schools to promise badly needed reforms to the Obama-mandated Title IX system. Groups of law professors at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the American Association of Trial Lawyers and the American Association of University Professors broadly support her.

Campus activists are certain to put up a fight. If nothing else, quite a few jobs could be at stake. Harvard University, for example, now has 55 Title IX investigators — full time sex sleuths, most of them.

"Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?" ask Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera, University of Michigan "campus sexual violence researchers" in a recent New York Times op ed. Definitely not judges and juries. "College tribunals," we're reminded "are not criminal courts." Also, false rape accusations are perishingly rare — a truism among academic feminists that Yoffe shows to be based upon fallacious evidence.

In real life, of course, both men and women lie all the time, and sex is one of the topics they lie about most often. Ask any divorce lawyer.

Gleckman-Krut and Bedera insist that bad witnesses are the best witnesses: "[T]rauma can make survivors seem disorganized to campus administrators who are untrained." To Emily Yoffe, this is the intellectual heart of the matter. Based upon a highly influential, but highly-unscientific paper called "The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault," Title IX investigators have been taught that trauma wrecks memory, so that the more confused a victim's story, the truer it's apt to be.

Brain scientists Yoffe interviewed say otherwise, as does common experience. Terrible events too often can't be forgotten. Intoxication, however, definitely makes for shaky recall. Meanwhile, as in "recovered memory" episodes of yore, overzealous inquisitors can persuade people of damn near anything.

Yoffe writes that her own reporting doesn't "typically describe campuses filled with sociopathic predators. They mostly paint a picture of students, many of them freshmen, who begin a late-night consensual sexual encounter, well lubricated by alcohol, and end up with divergent views of what happened." In short, basic "Animal House" stuff — more John Belushi than, well, Donald Trump. The Michigan team does patronizingly concede "that being accused of sexual assault hurts. And there are things that we can and should do to help accused students — namely, providing them with psychological counsel. But accused men's pain does not excuse rape, and men shouldn't be the ones defining it."

Look, nothing excuses rape. Nowhere, never. But they can keep their psychological counseling. It's legal counsel accused students need.

Let judges and juries do the defining.

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