On Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the stories of those claiming to be wrongly accused of campus sexual assault “are not often told.”
Earlier that day, groups representing sexual assault survivors gathered in front of the Department of Education to share the stories of people who have been sexually assaulted at their school or university. Politicians, former Obama administration officials, and sexual assault survivors urged DeVos to enforce Title IX and the 2011 department of education guidance that clarified and added more direction on how universities should investigate campus sexual assault.
“All their stories are important,” DeVos told reporters, shortly after she met with both groups representing victims of sexual assault and people who said they were wrongly accused.
But researchers estimate that somewhere between only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false — making her remarks an example of false balance. And in general, the perspectives of those accused of sexual assault have not been neglected in mainstream media outlets, which often focus on the lives of the accused and what they could lose as a result of the allegation. Publications like The New York Times, Slate, Newsweek, and The Washington Post have all published numerous pieces that are very sympathetic to those accused of sexual assault.
This was evident in how the media handled the story of Brock Turner, the man found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman on the Stanford campus, for example. In reporting the story, the Washington Post published a piece that described him as an “all-American swimmer.” The piece focused on Turner’s athletic record and ended by noting his career plans.
“Turner’s future was once bright,” the piece reads. “He began swimming at age 2 in his home town of Oakwood, Ohio. At age 10, he was named in the local newspaper as helping his swim team win a championship. By the time he entered high school, he had already won the Ohio Junior Olympics.”
The piece does not talk about the once bright future of Turner’s victim.
The stories blaming sexual assault victims are also prevalent in the media. In 2014, George Will wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post, that argued sexual assault survivors “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” It was controversial, but it represented the tone of many reported pieces on campus rape that were published since then. In 2015, Newsweek published a story with the headline “The Other Side of the College Sexual Assault Crisis” that was incredibly sympathetic to people accused of sexual assault. The piece quotes Paul Nungresser, the Columbia University student who was accused of sexual assault by fellow student Emma Sulkowicz in 2013.
“That was obviously a huge shock, and a whole world for me broke apart,” Nungresser told Newsweek. The piece did not ask if Sulkowicz’ world also fell apart.
Recently, The New York Times published a piece about the department of education’s position on campus rape policies with this lede:
The letters have come in to her office by the hundreds, heartfelt missives from college students, mostly men, who had been accused of rape or sexual assault. Some had lost scholarships. Some had been expelled. A mother stumbled upon her son trying to take his own life, recalled Candice E. Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education.
All of these stories contribute to the minimization of the trauma rape survivors experience, and language about “the other side” of the story fuel the perception that it’s just as likely that rape allegations are false as it is that they are true.
Most bylines on stories about sexual assault belong to men, at 55 percent versus 31 percent for women, according to a a 2015 Women’s Media Center report. Fourteen percent of stories did not have bylines. Male journalists also used fewer female sources than female journalists did. This affected how stories were told, because only 10 percent of men quoted in these stories talked about the effect on the victim, while 22 percent of female sources did. Male journalists used quotes about impact on the perpetrator slightly more often than female journalists.
In general, a small percentage of the stories focused on the impact of rape or rape allegations on survivors and the accused. Only 9 percent of the stories studied looked at the impact of sexual assault on the alleged survivor and only 3 percent focused on the effects of accusations on alleged perpetrators. Since false rape reports range between 2 and 10 percent of reported rapes and false rape accusations typically don’t have serious consequences, it seems appropriate that the emotional toll and career consequences for the accused would appear less often.
Despite the fact that false reports are rare, DeVos met with groups representing the accused, which included the National Coalition for Men Carolinas, SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, and Families Advocating for Campus Equality.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors said they weren’t pleased with DeVos’ decision to meet with these groups. The National Coalition for Men Carolinas has published photos and names of women they call “false accusers.” SAVE published a piece on how men’s rights have been “undermined by domestic violence laws.” FACE has compared the experience of being accused of rape to the actual trauma of sexual assault itself.
Groups representing sexual assault survivors were further upset earlier this week when the head of the department of education’s civil rights division, which handles investigations on how universities deal with campus rape complaints, essentially said that most campus rape allegations were not worth investigating.
The education department official, Candice Jackson, told The New York Times, “Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of, ‘We were both drunk, we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’” (She later apologized for her comments.)
During the press conference on Thursday, DeVos framed universities’ mishandling of sexual assault complaints as if it was simply a problem in the past. She said, “And I acknowledge there was a time when women were essentially dismissed. That is not acceptable.”
“A system without due process protections ultimately serves no one in the end,” she added, echoing a common complaint from men’s rights activists and other groups representing the accused.