Last Friday, the National Panhellenic Conference, a umbrella organization for sororities, finally withdrew its support for the Safe Campus Act, long after virtually every national anti-sexual violence group had condemned it. As a member of Greek life at Yale, and co-founder of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, the NPC’s previous support for the bill had long been a source of frustration and anger for me. The Safe Campus Act would ban universities from investigating reports of sexual assault themselves and prevent them from punishing offenders unless the victim reports the attack to the police. It would be nothing short of disastrous for victims of sexual assault.
The representatives proposing the bill ostensibly do so on the grounds that colleges are ineffective at investigating sexual assault, and favor the accuser over the accused. While there are undoubtedly problems with college investigative processes, in truth, this legislation is based on an insidious distrust of victims, and a wildly irrational belief that false rape claims are the real problem with sexual assault on campus. But, The Safe Campus Act would not limit universities’ abilities to investigate and punish any other crime. Someone who had been physically assaulted would still be able to report the incident to the university, utilize an internal investigative process and see the perpetrator punished by their college.
The singling out of sexual assault as the one crime for which police reporting would be mandated speaks to the suspicion often directed at victims. Those who argue that students falsely report sexual assault in order to exact some petty revenge or get attention frequently use the myth of false rape claim to derail the conversation. They maintain against all evidence that these people willingly face the threats, social ostracism and vitriol that are often directed at victims that come forward.
Making police reporting the only option open to victims would be catastrophic. The pervasiveness of victim blaming and indifference to sexual assault within the police force is well documented. According to a 2015 article in USA Today, there is a backlog of 70,000 untested rape kits in police departments across the country — evidence that could lead to thousands of prosecutions if utilized properly. And an investigation earlier this month by The Guardian found that hundreds of police departments systematically destroy rape kits after a certain time has elapsed, removing the possibility that victims receive justice.
The police force has long been a perpetrator of violence and discrimination against women of color and individuals with non-binary gender identities, two groups that are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence and disproportionately unlikely to report it. According to the advocacy organization “Know Your IX,” many states do not recognize rape against someone of the same gender, or rape against men, as a crime at all. Additionally, given the likelihood that there are no direct witnesses, it is extremely hard to find someone guilty of rape using the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard of evidence used in courtrooms. At the college level, however, the standard used is “preponderance of the evidence,” since the most serious penalty is expulsion — not jail time. Since the stakes are lower, victims are more likely to come forward and see their attackers punished.
Rather than legislating the issue, we should be holding colleges accountable to improve their existing reporting processes for sexual assault and support for victims. Given the recent number of fraternity assault scandals, it is no coincidence that the North-American Interfraternity Conference had long supported the bill in spite of widespread criticism. By mandating police reporting, the government takes responsibility away from colleges, rather than pushing them to explore new ways of improving their sexual climates. Constraining a university’s ability to help victims limits the options of survivors in how they choose to move forward.
Being sexually assaulted is one of the most disempowering experiences an individual can face. The Safe Campus Act would slash the already limited agency afforded to survivors. It is a piece of legislation designed to protect the attacker rather than the victim, and the powerful rather than the marginalized. If passed, it would send a clear message to survivors that the institutions charged with keeping them safe fail to do so.
Helen Price is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .