What’s next on the list of civil-rights protections the Trump administration plans to scale back? Apparently Title IX—the law that bans sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal money. In a speech delivered at the Antonin Scalia Law School in Virginia, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decried the federal government’s current Title IX policies on campus sexual assault and harassment, claiming that they enable “kangaroo courts” and often deny due process for the accused. DeVos’s remarks were no surprise to anyone who has been following her recent movements, including meetings with the National Coalition for Men—a “men’s rights” group that believes the focus on campus sexual violence harms young men and violates their civil rights.
“Schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment,” DeVos said in her speech last week. “Too many cases involve students and faculty who have faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds or teaching their classes.”
In 2011, the Obama administration issued a directive to colleges informing them that, in order to comply with Title IX, they would need to follow specific guidelines in sexual-assault and harassment cases. These guidelines included adopting a “preponderance of evidence” standard, ending the cross-examination of accusers, and allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty verdicts. DeVos’s speech marked her intentions to reverse these policies. The ramifications of this decision are twofold: One, returning to the pre-Obama days of Title IX would allow universities to weaken their procedures for sexual-assault investigations, making it more difficult for survivors to seek justice. But even more dangerous is the message DeVos’s speech sends to those who might be inclined to forgo consent and commit sexual assault. Just as Trump’s open flirtation with white nationalists has emboldened racial violence in this country, DeVos’s courting of men’s-rights groups and adoption of their cause might also provoke more sexual violence on campuses.
DeVos’s speech shows a total failure to understand the complexity of sexual violence and the unique dynamics that may impact a campus rape investigation. But she’s far from the only voice arguing that Title IX denies due process to men accused of sexual assault. Just a day before DeVos’s speech, Emily Yoffe, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, penned a piece entirely devoted to the ways in which Title IX procedures have been “unjust to men” (she has also said that the best way for college women to avoid getting raped is to not get drunk).
Yoffe cites two incidents—one at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and the other at the University of Southern California—to highlight how messy, complicated allegations have ruined the lives of men accused of rape. In her discussion of the UMass case, Yoffe highlights the races of those involved (the accuser was a white woman and the accused was a black man), but never once considers whether historical tropes of black men as threats to white women might have played a role in the troubled process. Instead, she places the blame squarely at the feet of Title IX. The case at USC involved a neighbor who reportedly witnessed a football player physically hurting his girlfriend; the girlfriend denied it. Yoffe laments what she calls “a troubling paradox within the activist community…the belief that while women who make a complaint should be given the strong benefit of the doubt, women who deny they were assaulted should not necessarily be believed.” But she doesn’t seem to be aware of the reason that such denials might be subject to scrutiny: Many victims of intimate partner violence are often hesitant to see it as such, and are fearful of speaking out against their abusers. (DeVos also referenced the USC case in her speech.)