The Education Department’s senior civil rights official sparked controversy Wednesday by stating that “90%” of sexual assault accusations “fall into the category of ‘We were both drunk,'” suggesting that they are regretted drunken hookups — and provoking repudiations from survivors of campus sexual assault.
Candice Jackson, the acting head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, told the New York Times that the overwhelming majority of sexual assault investigations do not involve “even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.”
“Rather, the accusations — 90% 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,’” Jackson said.
Later, Jackson walked those comments back.
Still, Jackson’s statements come just as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to meet with three groups representing different sides of the campus rape debate Thursday.
Sexual assault survivors immediately took issue with Jackson’s claim. Georgia State University law student Grace Starling, who was interviewed for the Times article but was not quoted in it, told USA TODAY College that the statistic was “completely asinine.”
“You’re telling me that 90% [of accusations] are from people who have been dating and then break up and then six months later, they report it? Because that’s a very specific situation, and it’s shocking to me that it would be 90% of those people,” Starling says.
Starling, a self-identified sexual assault survivor, was a leader in the fight against House Bill 51, a controversial bill in the Georgia state legislature that aimed to protect the rights of students accused of rape. Jackson’s comments echo the rhetoric Starling heard as she worked to stop the bill, Starling says.
“You get these random statistics,” Starling says. “You’ve either got [studies about false rape accusations] with super small sizes in really rural areas with biased investigators, or you’ve got, like, no data, and it’s just anecdotal and you’re making up a number.”
She added, “But when you work for the Department of Education, and you’re speaking to The New York Times about a very important issue, you got to make sure your numbers are right.”
Jackson’s comments also struck a chord with Lupita Gonzalez, a senior at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota who, along with 113 other survivors of sexual violence, signed a letter to DeVos published in Teen Vogue Wednesday.
“It’s so frustrating to see that there is one standard narrative that many imply is the case for everyone who makes a Title IX report or complaint,” Gonzalez told USA TODAY College via email. “I was not drunk or even had alcohol in my system when I was raped, and the man who raped me wasn’t someone I was dating.”
When Gonzalez tells people about her rape, the responses are similar to Jackson’s beliefs, she says.
“A few people told me I had simply regretted having sex and that I was being overly sensitive and had taken extreme measures by reporting him to campus officials,” Gonzalez says. “One of my really good friends told me ‘he probably didn’t mean to’ and that I ‘should move on.’ These are the last things a rape victim needs to hear.”
Ali Romero, a junior at Stanford University, says the belief that a large percentage of rape allegations come from women regretting consensual sex is misguided.
“I can speak firsthand and say that not all victims of sexual assault and rape know that they were assaulted or raped right after it happened,” Romero tells USA TODAY College via email. “It often takes days, week, months or even years for a survivor to realize what happened to them was non-consensual and a criminal act, and the allegations that come from these survivors should not be considered any less legitimate.”
Title IX matters bc rape victims shouldn't face more stigma and judgement than rapists do. Rape culture in education must change. #DearBetsy— Ali Romero (@AliRomero24) July 6, 2017
Jackson’s statements hurt survivors and their activism, says Venkayla Haynes, a recent Spelman College graduate who also worked against House Bill 51 and served on the student advisory board for Vice President Joe Biden’s national “It’s On Us” campaign.
“If you’re in a society that constantly perpetuates rape culture, and there is no improvement, then many ask themselves, ‘What are we fighting for?'” Haynes, who also signed on to the Teen Vogueop-ed, said in an email to USA TODAY College. “As a survivor myself, I’ve asked myself this question many times … In the end, you have to keep pushing forward and use comments like these to push your activism further and advocate for those who have not found their voice yet.”
On Thursday, activists from survivor groups and organizations representing the falsely accused will have their chance to make their case to DeVos. She will spend 90 minutes each with groups of sexual violence survivors, educational administrators and experts and a group of parents and students who have been “falsely accused and disciplined under Title IX,” according to a press release from the Education Department.
Starling, Haynes, Gonzalez and Romero all hope that DeVos will take survivors’ stories and concerns seriously. Haynes added that she would like to see the Department of Education “start to hold institutions and perpetrators accountable for their actions,” though she thinks this is unlikely under the Trump administration.
Though she is happy that survivors are getting face time with DeVos, Starling took issue with the inclusion of “men’s rights activists” in the conversation around Title IX enforcement. DeVos will meet with representatives of the National Coalition for Men Carolinas, which claims to be the “oldest men’s human rights organization in America” on its website.
Starling equated meeting with men’s right’s activists to “taking a bunch of Twitter trolls and being like, ‘Come on over, let’s talk.'”
“Conversations about fair process and having disciplinary hearings that are fair for both parties —
that should be given all the credence in the world. That conversation should be given time and thought,” Starling says. “But these activists who are espousing misogynistic views … they should not be given the time.”