Epidemics on Campus, Real and Imagined
Each academic year, activists and politicians sound the alarm that the nation’s college campuses are overrun by an epidemic of sexual violence. Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, has warned the nation that “one in five of every one of those young women who is dropped off for that first day of school, before they finish school, will be assaulted in her college years.” The numbers are swelling even larger in other surveys, to one in four or even one in three.
Interestingly, despite this so-called epidemic of sexual violence, colleges never made the decision to close. Instead they staffed up student conduct offices and dismantled due process protections for students accused of sexual misconduct in an effort to persuade alleged victims to come forward.
Now that COVID-19 has hit, we’ve seen how schools respond to a true epidemic. As more people got sick and even died from the coronavirus, colleges across the country closed, mostly voluntarily, in advance of state-ordered shutdowns—even though college-age adults are at much lower risk of death than older adults. Numerous colleges, including the entire California State University system, have already announced that they will not reopen for in-person instruction this fall.
This dramatic, rapid response suggests colleges would react very differently if they actually believed that 20 to 33 percent of their female students would fall victim to violent crime during their time in college.
Those one-in-five numbers come from surveys that define sexual assault differently from both the law and common understandings of what sexual assault entails. One survey asked participants if they’d ever had sex while drunk, or if someone had ever “pressured” them into sex by “threatening to end your relationship” or “showing they were unhappy.” In another survey, participants who answered yes to questions about unwanted conduct were recorded as victims, despite the fact that half of those alleged victims, when asked, did not consider the incidents “serious enough” to report.
Activists who are worried about the prevalence of assault have led opposition to the Department of Education’s new regulations governing the disciplinary process for students accused of sexual misconduct. These new regulations include such staples of Anglo-American justice as the presumption of inno
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