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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How campus rape policy went wrong

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pledged to hold hearings on how to revise federal policy to protect assault victims and due process rights.

Pressured by the federal government and beliefs about “rape culture,” colleges have tried to police their students’ sex lives. Emily Yoffe’s excellent three-part Atlantic series explains what went wrong.

Part 1: Rules intended to help sexual-assault victims have denied due process to the accused, Yoffe writes.

Part 2 deals with the bad science underlying “trauma-informed” investigations and adjudications.

. . . some schools have come to rely on the work of a small band of self-styled experts in the neurobiology of trauma . . . . It generally goes like this: People facing sexual assault become terrified, triggering a potent cascade of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.This chemical flood impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impeding victims’ capacity for rational thought, and interferes with their memory. They may have significant trouble recalling their assault or describing it coherently or chronologically. The fear of imminent death may further elicit an extended catatonic state known as “tonic immobility,” rendering them powerless to speak or move—they feel “frozen.” As a result, those adjudicating sexual-assault allegations are told, the absence of verbal or physical resistance, the inability to recall crucial parts of an alleged assault, a changing story—none of these factors should raise questions or doubt about a claim. Indeed, all of these behaviors can be considered evidence that an assault occurred.

Neuroscience research doesn’t support these claims about trauma and memory, says Richard McNally, a Harvard psychology professor and an expert on the subject. “Extreme stress enhances memory” of the traumatic event, according to his book.

Yoffe also talked to Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, who put the kibosh on the “recovered memory” hysteria.

(I wrote about the lack of evidence for “recovered memory” as an op-ed columnist and was accused of being a child molester.)

Someone who’s too drunk to remember what happened is “very vulnerable to post-event suggestion,” Loftus told Yoffe.

This can include someone, especially an authority figure, labeling a consensual act as rape. She said it’s then easy for exaggerated, or even entirely false, memories to be created, ones that feel completely real. . . . “The universities are under enormous pressure to do something about sexual assault, and they sometimes fill these offices with people whose bias and agendas lead them to create victimhood.”

Part 3: Race may play a factor in accusations of sexual assault. While statistics are hard to find, professors tell Yoffe that most complaints involve a white woman accusing a minority male. Black males are “vastly overrepresented” in the cases she’s tracked.

. . . as the definition of sexual assault used by colleges has become wider and blurrier, it certainly seems possible that unconscious biases might tip some women toward viewing a regretted encounter with a man of a different race as an assault.

Less than 5 percent of Colgate students are black, yet blacks were accused of 25 percent of the sexual misconduct reported to the university from 2012-13 to 2014-15, Yoffee writes. They made up 21 percent of those referred for hearings and 15 percent of those held responsible. “During that same three-year period, Asian students, who were a little more than 3 percent of Colgate’s student body in 2013, were more than 13 percent of the accused, 21 percent of those referred for hearings, and 23 percent of those found responsible.”

Here’s the New York Times round-up of opinion on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ pledge to revise federal dictates on how colleges deal with sexual-assault accusations. I think the opinion tide is turning toward a saner, fairer approach.

Teri Hall, vice president of student affairs, said with (sorority) recruitment starting Thursday night, the incident brought “a chilly climate to campus.” Hall said while the banner was “absolutely inappropriate,” the timing escalated the incident, both with recruitment beginning and with the apparent rollback of Title IX by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Some interpreted “free house tours” as “come in so we can rape you.”

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