With her proposed new Title IX rules, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is once again showing that privilege trumps truth in cases of sexual violence.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an angry man in possession of a pricey lawyer must be in want of revenge.
Or so it seems, reading the recent complaint filed by a student expelled from Dartmouth College for sexual assault. The young man known as “John Doe” is suing his former college for treating him “unfairly” during the Title IX investigation that led to his expulsion. Doe is a star hockey player with a high GPA who fears his future career in finance may be in jeopardy. The lawsuit is a bid for vindication and a shameless display of white male entitlement.
The number of perpetrator lawsuits like Doe’s is rising nationwide. Following the Trumpian tactic of “deny, deny,” young men are litigating rather than taking responsibility (or expressing regret) for sexual misconduct. Many cite Betsy DeVos’s new Title IX rules—currently being vetted by the Department of Education— which give more benefit of the doubt to the accused, narrow the definition of sexual assault, mandate live hearings with cross-examinations, and limit the scope of schools’ investigations. In December, a student sued Harvard for “unlawfully” investigating an alleged rape because it took place off-campus, while a man expelled from the University of Chicago is suing for Title IX gender discrimination.
But it’s John Doe of Dartmouth who haunts me, because I was also assaulted by an entitled athlete in a Dartmouth dorm room. Unlike Doe’s victim, I didn’t report the incident or submit to the ordeal of a formal investigation. I carried my shame alone for decades and only recently started speaking out against the deep-rooted culture of sexual violence and gender harassment at my alma mater. Dartmouth is facing a $70 million class action suit for failing to protect students from 16 years of abuses perpetrated by three professors in its psychological and brain sciences department. The College has staunchly denied all allegations and claimed ignorance of the pervasive abuse. Like Doe, they actively engage in victim-blaming in their legal filing, and appear more concerned about their reputation than those who’ve been harmed.
Doe’s lawyers paint him as the innocent victim of a politically motivated punishment, a plight Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh raged about during his 2018 hearing. As I read through the complaint, I was stunned to find my own name in its pages, cited along with my alumni group, Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment & Sexual Violence, for pressuring the College to “respond harshly to allegations of violence against women.” At first, it felt vulnerable to be a line item in a legal argument advanced by the men’s-rights movement. Then my husband reframed it: “You know you’re succeeding as an activist when an alleged assaulter claims you’re making life harder for him.”
And claim he does. One of Doe’s biggest grievances is that he won’t be able to finish his final seasons on the Big Green’s Division I hockey team. He’s also suffering the loss of a lucrative summer internship, his springboard to a career on Wall Street. The entitlement here recalls the Brock Turner case, in which the Stanford swimmer’s “bright future” outweighed any impact on the woman he assaulted. As a high-achieving perpetrator, Doe believes his life should be valued over that of his female victim. An independent Title IX investigation found him guilty, but he has the wealth and the privilege to protest.
The historical barrier to ending sexual abuse, says law professor Catharine McKinnon, has been “the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.” Perpetrators often wield legal systems to intimidate and silence survivors. Custody battles in domestic violence cases, defamation in sexual assault suits, claims of gender discrimination against male offenders—all rely on the misogyny of the general public and use victims’ own trauma responses against them. Doe’s team of lawyers went straight to the press with their filing, a further tactic of intimidation.
Sexual violence on college campuses remains a national epidemic. In a recent survey, 34 percent of Dartmouth female undergraduates reported “non-consensual touching or penetration”—a number that should constitute a public health crisis, demanding an urgent response. If a third of all women students contracted meningitis after coming to Dartmouth, the powers-that-be would take immediate action. Yet Betsy DeVos wants to disregard this crisis and implement regressive rules that will make it even harder for victims of sexual assault to come forward, let alone seek justice.
But the young woman John Doe calls “Sally Smith” has kept her integrity and followed protocol every step of the way. I wish I’d been able to go straight to the Title IX coordinator after I was raped in 1992 (the College didn’t have a Title IX office until 2014). When I was a student, I lacked the resources to support my breaking silence and feared being maligned and disbelieved. Doe’s attorneys may have tried to intimidate his victim, but she’s still at Dartmouth, getting an Ivy League education, supported by her peers, professors, and advocates everywhere. As her ally, I’m proud to have my name printed in this despicable lawsuit. In the words of trauma expert Judith Herman: “Those who stand with the victim will inevitably have to face the perpetrator’s unmasked fury. For many of us, there can be no greater honor.”
And DeVos? Born to wealth and privilege, she’s shown she stands with the John Does and Brock Turners of the world, elite young men outraged to face consequences for their behavior. She maintains her power by upholding the powerful and doesn’t care about making campuses safer. But before her new rules can be implemented, the Department of Education must read and respond to over 100,000 public comments, most of them critical. This review period could last a few months to a few years. May the Trump administration come to an end before DeVos compels schools to overhaul their Title IX processes and further emboldens violators.
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