I am a woman who is a survivor of repeated sexual assault and violence. While working with Title IX, I became intimately aware of both the inefficiencies of the existing process and the patronizing culture surrounding issues of sensitivity; it encourages mockery and misunderstandings from wider society. These responses stem from extreme, ridiculed policies like the replacement of clapping with ‘jazz hands’ at NUS to protect our ‘delicate sensibilities’ or the banning of discussion of Ferguson in UCLA law exams in fear that asking questions about current affairs will upset people. Survivors like me deserve compassion and respect. While the Task Force obviously took steps to respect due process concerns that that have previously been raised —expulsion decisions must be unanimous– its proposals ultimately stigmatize survivors further and increase our alienation. They reinforce the narrative that rape cases are tenuous and easy to falsify, subtly fostering a skepticism towards sexual assault survivors that actively impedes recovery.
Stanford has a duty to defend the rights of each student equally until it is fairly determined that there is a reason to strip an individual of certain rights. Therefore, the University must protect both parties in a sexual assault hearing until a verdict is reached. For a student who has been accused, but not yet convicted, due process is the only acceptable protection. Sexual assault charges destroy lives; under the Task Force’s proposals, individuals found guilty are certain to lose their education and will also likely lose any current jobs, most future career prospects, and the respect and trust of almost everyone they hold dear. If the accused parties did indeed perpetrate sexual assault, this outcome is entirely justified. If they did not, it is indefensible. A fair proceeding is the best way to minimize the number of innocents who will lose everything when wrongfully convicted.
First, the proposal fails to do this by stating that only a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ is required for conviction. This means that instead of being beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault occurred, the panelists merely need to believe that the assault is more likely than not. While this is a federal mandate and outside of Stanford’s control, Stanford’s policy actively exacerbates the problems caused by low burdens of proof. For example, only one person decides appeals, preventing discussion and argument, and the repeatedly stated focus on speed may preclude thorough evaluation of existing evidence. Moreover, while both sides are entitled to a lawyer, neither lawyer is allowed to speak during the trial because it creates an ‘adversarial environment,’ as if rape trials are otherwise amiable and consensus-driven. The proposal itself states that students ‘may find the experience overwhelming, confusing and upsetting.’ It would presumably be advisable that these students have a trained professional to guide them through the most crucial part of this process, as opposed to forcing untrained young adults to think on their feet under intense pressure. The document also gives little to no detail on the structure of these hearings. For example, there is much ambiguity around the bodies that would determine what evidence is fit to be submitted, and what the criteria for their decision is. Most worryingly, it is unclear as to what other sexual conduct offenses might lead to expulsion. Not only are explicit sanctions a much more effective deterrent than nebulous ones, but the student body deserves to be aware of all potential consequences of their actions, and to have their say on whether they believe these consequences are appropriate.
For many activists, wrongful conviction is apparently not an issue; they point to the low number of false sexual assault claims as if to show that an incorrect guilty verdict is so unlikely as to merit no consideration. Although data about false rape claims are heavily disputed and politicized, most reasonable estimates put the figure between 1-8%. Even assuming that the actual number is at the lowest end of this spectrum, one out of every hundred people who will face a Title IX investigation will still be innocent and will risk losing everything for no reason at all. It is not the Task Force’s place to decide that this individual’s life is worth a certain number of correct sexual assault convictions. Stanford has never been an institution to pass policies favoring a majority when they harm a minority. It is imperative that Stanford does not abandon this standard when the stakes are so high.
This proposal is especially abhorrent when one considers the unmeasured effect that more ethical and basic reforms could have on reporting rates. Stanford’s infrastructure for processing sexual assault cases is both untested and unfinished. Massive staffing changes at the Title IX office, including the appointment of a new director and the replacement of the entire counselling staff, caused reports and referrals to proceed at a glacial pace for large portions of fall quarter. This consequence was particularly frustrating to me given the severity of the situation reported. It is incredibly difficult to reach out for help in the aftermath of the assault. The office’s failure to rapidly engage reinforced my worry that my attack did not matter or was not valid; it made me feel like an imposter whose so-called problems were not worthy of an email, let alone an investigation. Moreover, there are so many disparate, differentiated offices like SARA, Title IX and RD&E involved in sexual assault investigations that it is very difficult for a student to know where to take a complaint. While the proposal thankfully suggests streamlining all offices involved in the actual investigation into one, it fails to address the ambiguity in the confidentiality of resources that students are encouraged to use. For example, all residential staff are required to report details of any form of sexual assault to Title IX, a fact which is not widely known. In several cases, this lack of clarity has led to a student disclosing private information to the wrong department, which subsequently led to a loss of confidentiality and control of their information. Helping rape victims and protecting the accused is not a zero-sum game, and the University should concentrate on testing and fixing Stanford’s newly minted, imperfect infrastructure before permanently damaging it with extreme and unnecessary ‘reforms.’
However, even by the Task Force’s warped criteria for successful policy, —prioritizing convictions over justice— its proposal fails because of the massive damage the unfair process inflicts on sexual assault survivors and the Stanford community as a whole. Many survivors will tell you that there are two parts to their trauma. The first part is the attack itself, and the tremendous feelings of fear, degradation and shame that stay with you for months and years; the panic attacks and nightmares, and the long showers spent scrubbing your skin raw. The second part is the judgment and belittlement from people around you. Survivors are told that the assault was their fault; they are told that they are slutty or irresponsible, or even that they are making everything up. The first person I disclosed my experiences to was a nurse at Vaden who performed STD tests. She told me that she hoped I had learnt something valuable from my experience. This was far from the last time I was held fully culpable. This response entrenches the already-overwhelming guilt and humiliation survivors feel, making healing and recovery an even more distant possibility.
Justice systems are designed to explicitly counter these notions of dishonesty and culpability. A guilty verdict shows that an average person, as represented by the jury, believes that a crime did occur and that it was not the victim’s fault. When this level of certainty is diminished by lowering the burden of proof, claims that rape convictions are unreliable and allegations falsified are bolstered. Although it is the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that determines this burden, the Task Force’s proposed policy exacerbates the destructive effect federal legislation has on due process. With the burden as low as it is, I believe that the penalty expulsion should be an option, but not a requirement. This allows the university to fully factor in uncertainty and circumstance when applying sanctions for assault. There are also more wrongful convictions with a lower standard, increasing the number of people who resent the system for ruining their lives. Both of these factors contribute to a greater culture of disbelief and anger at sexual assault survivors, who, as the plaintiffs, are held responsible for wrongful convictions, and seen as altogether less honest or legitimate.
This resulting culture is especially true at Stanford where the outcome of sexual assault cases has had measurable effects in areas like Greek life, which is incredibly important to many community members. When students feel that their social life was curtailed without proper investigation or justification, some of their anger is inevitably directed at sexual assault survivors they see as potentially dishonest. While some might argue that we should not cater to rape skeptics, those very skeptics must be considered when creating policy due to the massive effect their views and activities have on survivors. The Task Force’s proposal is likely to strengthen the voice of those who believe that sexual assault cases are illegitimate while alienating moderates who believe that the solution to sexual assault on campus is not the destruction of a fair system and harming those it purports to protect. I will bear physical and mental marks from my attack for the rest of my life. The Task Force’s policy and attitudes that ensue are an excellent reason to keep them hidden out of sight.
*Note: At the author’s request, our editorial board decided to publish this article anonymously. *