Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault: Why Asian Americans Must Join The Fight to #StopBetsy

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carries the mattress she was raped on, in an art project titled “Carry That Weight”. (Photo credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton)

Today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education would roll back Obama era guidelines to protect victims and survivors of on-campus sexual assault by applying Title IX to on-campus investigations into sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Studies have long confirmed an epidemic of on-campus sexual assault and harassment — one that has been largely overlooked by school administration. An on-campus study conducted by Duke University revealed that an alarming 40% of female undergraduates had experienced sexual assault, as had 10% of male undergraduates. Similarly high rates of sexual assault were found at Yale (38.8% of female undergraduates) as well as in a combined study of 27 universities (23% of female undergraduates). At Cornell, 13% of female undergraduates reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual penetration, one of many forms of sexual assault. These data are highly disturbing: they suggest that a female undergraduate student is 5.5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the average resident of most major US cities. Furthermore, sexual assault is a highly gendered crime: on-average, female undergraduate students are four to five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than male students.

The issue of on-campus sexual assault is of particular relevance to Asian American women and other women of colour. At Duke, white female undergraduates are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to white male undergraduates; but for Asian American female undergraduate students, the gender disparity in sexual assault rises to more than six times more likely to be assaulted, and Black or Hispanic female undergraduates are at even greater risk of sexual assault. In the larger study of 27 universities, Asian American female students were 4.5 times more likely to have experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration compared to Asian American male students. For Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, female students were 5.5 times more likely to be assaulted than male students. These gender disparities were higher for Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students than for Black or White undergraduates.

Although on-campus sexual assault is far too common, it is rarely formally reported by female students. This is often because on-campus guidelines for handling sexual assault complaints rarely result in outcomes that favour the sexual assault survivor. Instead, assault victims and survivors find a system that doubts their accounts of sexual violence, and who are even known to engage in victim-blaming. Accused rapists and sexual assaulters are brought before a kangaroo court of administrators who are more interested in protecting universities from liability — or, in protecting university’s coffers from losing grant or donation funds — than in finding justice for victims and survivors. Too often, sexual assaulters are absolved of any wrongdoing by these committees.

In the rare case where they are found guilty, they receive the administrative equivalent of a slap-on-the-wrist; less than one-third of sexual assault cases result in expulsion. As best evidenced by the experiences of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz — who, incidentally, is Asian American — school administrators too often side with accused rapists over their victims, often leaving victims and survivors with no other recourse but to continue attending classes with their attackers.

A system that fails to find justice for victims and survivors is a system that discourages reporting. Indeed, studies show that 90% of female students who experience rape or sexual assault choose not to report it. Furthermore, Asian American female students have been found to be even less likely to report their sexual assault or harassment than other female students. This is an issue that deeply affects the Asian American community, and one that our community must therefore prioritize. We are part of this fight, too.

Under President Obama, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sought to address this issue by interpreting Title IX — a landmark bill co-authored by Representative Patsy Mink and passed in 1972  to prevent gender and sex discrimination in education — as establishing a basic civil right for female students to receive higher education free from the threat and violence of on-campus sexual assault. This is an eminently reasonable interpretation of Title IX.

The Obama Administration’s Department of Education established guidelines that universities adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard for finding a student guilty of sexual assault — a lower standard than might be required in a court of law but more appropriate for situations where the only evidence might be the testimonies of a survivor and her accused attacker. In addition, colleges and universities were at-risk of losing federal financial aid money if they did not seriously investigate complaints of on-campus sexual assault, and the Office of Civil Rights opened their own investigations into colleges and universities that might be in violation of Title IX by inadequately addressing on-campus sexual violence. In 2014, more than fifty schools were the subject of open investigations.

Most universities responded by implementing mandatory sexual assault and harassment training, and creating offices to formally investigate sexual assault complaints. Although on-campus systems for addressing sexual assault were far from perfect, the system was a marked improvement for victims and survivors who might at least have a chance of being taken at their word. With less than one decade of Title IX policies on on-campus sexual violence, campuses and universities were working towards a system that might eventually protect victims and survivors of sexual assault while limiting false accusations.

Nonetheless, conservatives critiqued the Title IX regulations on on-campus sexual violence, claiming that it victimizes accused rapists. To bolster that argument, conservatives suggest that most female students are either lying about their assault; or, that sexual assault victims and survivors engaged in “risky behaviour” that invited the violence they subsequently endured; or, that on-campus sexual violence is an overblown issue that ultimately isn’t really that big of a deal. These lines of argument rely upon the myth that the vast majority of victims are falsely “crying rape” as a way to exert power over men — which is, of course, a patently offensive, misogynistic stereotype that utterly dismisses the seriousness of sexual violence and trauma.

And yet, that is the reasoning used by Secretary Betsy DeVos today to dismantle a system that (at least marginally) protects victims and survivors of sexual assaults, in lieu of returning to one that only serves the interests of accused rapists and sexual predators. In so doing, DeVos insults the countless students who have experienced on-campus sexual assault and harassment, including the many who have been revictimized by an apathetic university administration who mishandled their complaints; even while DeVos also works to sully the Title IX legacy of Congresswoman Patsy Mink.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Trump Administration headed by a president who once gleefully condoned sexual assault is also the same administration that now seeks to dismantle protections for on-campus victims and survivors of sexual assault. This is a president who is, himself, accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and who has responded by declaring his accusers liars. It is entirely predictable that this would be a president who would favour a system to protect and pardon those accused of sexual assault, rather than to find justice for victims and survivors of sexual violence.

A system that leaves survivors of rape and sexual assault utterly alone to deal with the trauma of sexual violence is not a system worth preservation. Now is the time for the Asian American community to join the fight to protect victims and survivors of sexual assault and violence. Our children should not have to go to school at colleges and universities that will not defend them if they fall victim to sexual assault. Our children do not deserve to be further victimized over and over again by an uncaring system that places the interests of accused sexual predators over those they may have preyed upon.

Our children deserve far, far better — they deserve to be genuinely safe from the threat of sexual violence. Today, Betsy DeVos took a step towards the exact opposite.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Emma Sulkowicz went to New York University; she actually went to Columbia. I regret the error.

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  • evelyn kim

    Hey Jenn, Emma Sulkowicz was actually a Columbia University student who graduated in 2015, not an NYU student!

  • Ack thank you! This post has been corrected! I’m not sure how that happened!