One in four women at UW-Madison who responded to a 2015 national survey reported having been the victim of sexual assault and misconduct. One in 10 experienced penetrative sex to which they did not consent.
As few as one in 20 reported it to campus officials.
Women on campus pay the same tuition as men, live in the same university housing as men, and are the majority of students on campus. Yet our safety is constantly in question.
So we were frustrated by UW-Madison professor Donald Downs’ recent column in the State Journal, “Obama-era guidelines encouraged rush to judgment,” which supported U.S. Secretary Betsy Devos’ recent decision to rescind the previous administration’s rules for handling sex assault allegations on campuses.
The rape culture on campus is real, and it benefits the perpetrators of sexual assault.
Downs’ column references “rape culture” as a theoretical concept, but it is not mere theory to us. Downs has never had to sit in a room full of college boys while they try to convince a friend that an encounter she had was consensual, despite the fact she doesn’t remember it at all.
He will never be one of the 23 percent of undergraduate women who have been assaulted, or even one of the 5 percent of undergraduate men who suffer sexual abuse. Because “rape culture” does not affect him, he does not get to speak to its existence.
What’s disappointing about professor Downs’ column is he has done university-sponsored research on the effect of abuse on women and how being constantly belittled and unheard affects their well being. College women have had enough of being belittled and ignored. Guidelines from President Obama’s Education Department gave victims a safe place to achieve justice, which was a huge step forward in ensuring our right to learn and live on campus without fear of our perpetrators sitting next to us in class or living down the hall.
Downs’ comments on the rush to judgment are troubling considering the history of blaming victims in campus sexual assault cases. Too often the questions to the victims are the questions that rape culture perpetuates: What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Was she by herself? His narrative and comments perpetuate a belief system in which women must police ourselves and our own bodies and that we must be responsible for the actions that others take toward us.
Women were just starting to trust universities to support them due to the Obama administration’s guidelines. This trust has now crumbled as female students worry if they will be able to turn to Title IX when they need it the most.
Without protections on campus, we do not have the spaces we need to learn. We are constantly under threat in a way that older men such as Downs can never understand and a way that our foremothers internalized as a means of survival.
The way to give college women spaces to grow and be educated is to provide an environment where belittling them is unacceptable and believing them is the norm.
While the way most college campuses treat sexual assaults continues to be problematic, rolling back victim protections will not help victims. It is not the way to stop these assaults from happening.
By saying the rights of the perpetrator are more important than the rights of the victim, Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education are once again sweeping the issue of sexual assault under the rug.