by Stephanie Hauer
In Spring, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos revealed changes to Title IX. Title IX is a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex on college campuses that receive federal funding (around 3,000 colleges across the country.) While nothing in the original text of the law mentions sexual assault, various judges have interpreted it to include such incidents. DeVos’s recent changes solidify that interpretation by including specific language that designates sexual violence as unlawful sex discrimination. It also provides directives for how campuses should handle investigations.
Up until this point, guidance provided by the Department of Education for the investigation of such cases was not legally binding. It didn’t go through specific processes to get input on the recommendations, but it still informed proceedings on campuses across the country. DeVos’s changes have gone through a notice and comment process, which included opportunities to gather insights from survivors, advocates, Title IX coordinators, and more, so the new regulations are legally binding. The changes were made in the name of fairness to both the complainant and the alleged. Not everyone agrees that the new regulations achieved that goal, but the principle of a fair trial is an important one. Cases should be investigated in ways that show dignity and respect to everyone involved.
By its very nature, sexual assault is not pro-life, but our response to it can be. To do that, we need to uphold the dignity of the persons involved. The trauma of sexual assault dehumanizes its victims. In that moment, they are not treated like a human being worthy of respect, but as an object for the fulfillment of someone else’s desires. This is unacceptable, and our response to an assault must affirm the dignity of the survivor. Our words and our actions must demonstrate that we see them as a human being; that means that we must respect them, believe them, and fight for them.
We must also respect the humanity of the perpetrator. This is not in any way accepting or condoning sexual assault. It is cruel, it is harmful, and it is wrong. But the degree of one’s innocence does not determine their personhood. Every single human being deserves to be treated with dignity, no matter what they’ve done. Because human dignity is not earned; it’s inherent to our very natures.
But that dignity does not absolve anyone of their wrongdoings, and it certainly does not shield them from punishment. A perpetrator of sexual violence deserves consequences. The reaction should be just and humane, of course, but the very concept of justice necessitates consequences for wrong actions. Sexual assault is not to be taken lightly, and its perpetrators should be subject to ethical and effective punishments. Its survivors should be uplifted and supported through respect and resources.
So how do we approach sexual assault in a way that respects life? It starts first with our words and our attitudes. Language forms the basis of our understanding, and using it intentionally can shape a situation. Let us make the choice to use language that recognizes the dignity of the people involved. The official legal terminology is “complainant” and “alleged.” This is done to demonstrate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” so the phrasing is purposefully vague until a verdict is reached. But outside of legal documentation, we don’t usually use these phrases in day-to-day conversation. In those circumstances, where language choice is not prescribed by legal precedents, selection can be purposeful. Some people prefer the term “survivor” over the term “victim” because it has a more empowering connotation, for example.
Believe survivors. False accusations only make up between two and ten percent of reported incidents of sexual assault, and it’s estimated that sixty-three percent of assaults go unreported each year. That means that it is far more likely for the accusation to be credible than it is to be fake. Believe survivors, and believe their stories. That doesn’t mean abandoning due process; it means treating survivors with respect and investigating their accusation honestly. Listen to what they share with compassion, take their story seriously, and act on it by following through with the procedures that seek justice.
Don’t blame the victim. Common responses like “what were you wearing?” or “did you do something to attract their attention?” place the responsibility of the assault on the victim. This is dehumanizing, because it participates in the objectification of the victim. It implies that the survivor’s rights and free will don’t matter as much as their attacker’s. They are not a lesser human being in any way, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. A survivor is not responsible for their sexual assault. They have a right to bodily autonomy, to say “no” if they want to, and it should always be listened to.
Build trauma-informed responses into the investigation system, starting with the report and carrying all the way through to the verdict at the end of the process. Sexual assault is a traumatic and violent disregard for the humanity of the victim. The process to pursue justice can sometimes be traumatic as well. By building in trauma-informed responses, we can remove some of the unnecessary burden that is placed on the survivor. None of this is their fault to begin with, so it’s important that we do everything that we can to support them and make their journey toward justice easier. Some institutions are adding trauma-informed training for their responders, which includes information about the neurological impact of trauma, challenges stereotypes and stigma around sexual assault, and equips interviewers to utilize techniques that are both more compassionate and more effective.
The best practices for the investigation of sexual assault are still evolving, and many institutions are working to improve their policies. An approach that upholds the human dignity of each and every person can inform responses that are compassionate, respectful, and effective.