Content Warnings: pretty much all of them. Sexual assault, murder, mental illness, self-harm, other violence.
My self, abandon’d, and devoid of shame,
Thro’ the wide world your actions will proclaim;
That’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses, some two thousand years old and still relevant. We’ve never known how to handle the voices of rape survivors. Lucretia, raped by a Roman prince, told her story and then plunged a dagger into her breast; she validated her account with her life. One hopes that is no longer necessary to be believed, especially given that 1 in 5 women on college campuses experience sexual assault.
But the words above aren’t Lucretia’s. They’re from Philomela. She’s the survivor, the alternative narrative, the incredibly problematic and literally dehumanized remnant of a rape. Her brother-in-law Tereus offers to travel with her to see her sister. Instead, he rapes her as she calls out, “again and again, in vain, to her father, her sister, and most of all to the great gods.” She becomes (in many tellings) then temporarily frozen by the rape itself until after it ceases. She shouts. She self-harms. She guilt-trips Tereus. She wishes she were dead. She swears revenge. Even knowing she is isolated in the wilderness she raises a ruckus, ricocheting her voice off the trees and trying to move the rocks themselves with her volume. She steps outside the constraints of modesty and insists on being heard, making herself a danger to institutional stability: the king who has raped her, the strength of marriage vows, familial alliances, sisterly love.
She continues struggling to speak while Tereus cuts out her tongue. He keeps her imprisoned. She’s silenced and isolated. But stop and think about how we weave stories, follow the thread of a tale or a forum discussion, spin a yarn or put our own spin on things. Philomela weaves her account into a piece of cloth and somehow sends it to her sister.
So what should her sister do?
We still cringe at survivors’ voices. I shout and rant. I speak quietly and calmly. Either way, I make people uncomfortable. It’s not nice. There’s some unspoken code I break, by talking, that isn’t just the conversational taboo on sex-politics-religion. My words do violence to people’s worlds. For many men, either I must be an anomaly or else the world is egregiously more unfair — and their gender appallingly implicated — than they perceive. That settles it: I must be an anomaly.
For other genders, I take away a sense of agency and security. We think that if only we dress modestly, act sensibly, drink in moderation, exercise prudence, aren’t “that kind of girl,” then this can’t happen to us. And yet I dressed modestly. I behaved prudishly. I was incapacitated by a TBI and bewilderment, not alcohol.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claimed, today, that my voice may be heard. “Not one more survivor will be silenced,” she said. “We will amplify the voices of survivors who too often feel voiceless.”
She claims this as the President himself silences survivors. She claims this as she hires Candice Jackson, who dubbed President Trump’s accusers “fake victims” and derided survivors to the NYTimes with the comment, “90 percent of sexual assault cases fall into the category of, we were both drunk or are brought by unhappy ex-girlfriends.” She claims this as she takes aim at the very provisions that give campus survivors a voice.
DeVos phrases it differently. She will have you believe we have cases on campuses that do not follow due process. (True, both on and off campuses.) But more specifically, she will have you believe that the standard of evidence set forth by the Obama administration, in its 2011 Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, is a violation of due process. That it puts “the rights of one person … paramount to the rights of another.” That it tips the balance of Lady Justice’s scale. That it means guilt is predetermined. That it creates “a system biased toward finding a student responsible for sexual misconduct.” And that it is unfair.
Put another way, she will have you not believe rape survivors.
Why does the standard of evidence matter? It’s the burden of proof, the degree to which a sexual assault or harassment survivor must prove that the incident happened. We know “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We use that in criminal cases, in situations where a guilty verdict might deprive you of liberty or even life.
There are also civil cases, which may deprive you of money. There we often use “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning more likely than not. We might also use the somewhat higher standard of “clear and convincing.”
Now, if a university proceeding finds you responsible for sexually assaulting a fellow student, they cannot execute you. They cannot imprison you. They cannot even take your money away. The most they can do is expel you. You lose the opportunity to obtain a degree from that university, but keep the knowledge you’ve gained (which is ostensibly what you were paying for, right?), the ability to apply to other colleges, and the option of transferring credits. When DeVos fear-mongers that a student “saw her rapist go free” despite university and civil proceedings — well, yes. That’s not just because the university botched handling of that case. That would have happened regardless, because in any university adjudication, you will walk free.
You might have your reputation tarnished and your job prospects subsequently damaged, but that’s not on the university. That’s a consequence of living in a world with (social) media and Google. You’d run into that danger regardless, whether someone brought the charge against you in front of the university or not. Unlike a lot of court cases, records from university adjudications are very difficult or even impossible for outsiders to get ahold of.
So what does this have to do with believing survivors? This is a crime that often comes down to one person’s word versus another’s. In a crucial point here, preponderance of the evidence does not mean believing the accuser over the accused. It’s often represented as “50% plus 1.” The burden of proof is still on the accuser, and in the event of a tie — that is, in the event each party’s account is equally believable — we side with the accused. In spite of DeVos’s assertion, there is no predetermination of guilt.
Instead, this standard is the only place that presumption of innocence and believing students equally can meet. We cannot compare cases of sexual assault to other campus scourges like plagiarism, cheating, or underage drinking, even if those too can result in expulsion and are usually judged at the preponderance of evidence standard. The booze consumed by an underaged student does not have a voice; a rape survivor does. To presume the person she accuses is innocent is to presume that she herself is guilty of lying. If we use any other standard of evidence than the preponderance of the evidence, it means we find one student less trustworthy and credible than the other.
If Philomela tells her story, then Tereus is a rapist or she is a liar. If Philomela’s sister Procne chooses to value Philomela’s account, she must face an inescapable conundrum: sister or husband. It must be so much easier to dismiss the woven cloth; perhaps it wasn’t really from her. It must be so much easier to write me off as anomalous, or mistaken. Unreliable. Bitter, slighted or vengeful. Not trustworthy.
We don’t like crediting the rape survivor equally. It unsettles our worlds. It forces us to choose sides, to consider that maybe Tod — you know him, everyone does, he’s been here forever, he helped you out so many times, he’s so nice — isn’t good. If women are unreliable, then no one really has to be at fault. She’s upset about something and blowing it out of proportion, but she’s just like that, she can’t help it. Oversensitive. Took things out of context. And just look at the stakes for Tod! He has such a promising future and besides, what’s done is done.
Why believe them equally when only one faces devastating consequences? Because that’s not what’s really happening. Very often what’s actually being adjudicated is both parties’ access to the university. Yes, the accused may wind up expelled. But long before this point the accuser may already be struggling to keep access to education. We’ve calculated the lifetime cost of a rape in dollars, and it’s staggering. We know that it interferes with education on multiple fronts: the mental health aftereffects and the difficulties of pursuing a case (especially a criminal case at the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of evidence!) both deprive students of class time, focus, and money. We know large numbers of rape survivors get PTSD; we know it dramatically increases the risk of suicide.
I’ve used gendered pronouns in much of this because it is a gendered issue. Men can be (and are) rape survivors. On campuses, however, rape survivors are disproportionately women and genderqueer students. (As with all else, those who are multiply marginalized face extra risk here: rates of sexual harassment for those who are LGBTQ+, POC, disabled, and so on are elevated.)
So long as this remains the case, sexual assault will disproportionately prevent women from obtaining an education. It will discourage them from coming to campuses in the first place, from staying once they are here, and from continuing in the case that someone assaults them. This is literally why we have Title IX at all: to mitigate gendered barriers to education.
At the moment, the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, which clarifies how the Department of Education will interpret Title IX, offers a small oasis of fairness in this mess. It asks universities to believe rape survivors as much as we believe the accused; to believe women and genderqueer people as much as men. (None of this even touches on — or needs to — the fact that false rape accusations are no more common than false reports of other crimes: a tiny fraction.) DeVos, leading up to her speech today, met with interested parties. But not, despite initial plans, with rape survivor-led organizations. She met with men’s rights activists. She met with SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environtments, which campaigns against domestic violence laws and argues that the main cause of abuse is “female initiation of partner violence.” With the National Coalition for Men, which harasses and outs rape survivors. (Their leader thinks women often instigate assaults; he’s said that if Ray Rice’s girlfriend “hadn’t aggravated him, she wouldn’t have been hit.” Rice had knocked her out.) With Families Advocating for Campus Equality, which traffics in, shall we say, alternative facts about false rape and expulsions, lobbies against letting universities gather data on sexual assault, and claims falsely accused students “suffer emotional trauma similar to that of rape victims.”
If DeVos implements a higher standard of evidence, as she plainly intends, she will not remove the bias, unfairness, and discrimination she is decrying. Instead, she will reinstate it. She will codify into university policy nationwide that we must systemically prioritize rapists’ access to education over that of rape survivors; that we overwhelmingly choose to exclude from academia those who have been raped rather than rapists.
It means that we are placing an extra burden of proof on women, one that we do not attach to non-gendered university misconduct. Their bodily autonomy and credibility is less powerful than his word. It’s less abhorrent than copying part of a paper, or drinking coffee at Brigham Young University, or spray-painting the Administration building.
It means we default to not trusting survivors. We don’t want to believe them. And so we won’t. Soon enough we won’t even have to listen.
That’s not how it works.
Not anymore, not ever. Philomela weaves. I write. Others film, Snapchat, whisper, shout, scream. Kesha sings. Artemisia Gentileschi paints. She’s ignored when she cries out during her rape. She brings her rapist to trial and verifies her word by enduring medical examination and torture by thumbscrews. She succeeds, though he never serves time. She paints herself and paints the raped and violated women of legends. She paints women working together, murdering Holofernes, fighting Tereus. She paints violence.
We disrupt and rend the world people wish that they could still believe in, over believing us. We, too, are horrifying.
Husband, or sister?
Procne believes Philomela. Philomela’s journey to see her sister, the journey Tereus diverts and dead-ends, is belatedly completed; Procne rescues her. They travel onwards to the palace. They work together. They take their justice, and since that’s not available through legal, codified paths, what they actually take is vengeance. They break, once more, familial and marital and national bonds. They break humanity with their screams and take wing: one becomes a swallow, the other a nightingale, incessantly singing their account.
Universities can, for now, still choose to believe survivors. They can extend to their students equal faith, regardless of gender. They can commit to abiding by the Dear Colleague Letter even when they are no longer held to it.
We can sing out. We can leave comments for DeVos, during this period of limbo. We can campaign. We can tell our stories. If we can, we must tell our stories no matter how policies validate or deny them, in the face of known and unknown consequences, because our very telling shatters this current world.
And we can believe one another. You can believe us. Believe survivors. Believe women. Believe POC, LGBTQ+ people, undocumented people, all those the current administration wishes to undermine. Center others. Amplify those who are talked over and past. Call your representatives even when issues don’t directly affect you. Learn where we systemically mute and devalue the voices that disrupt our world. Pay attention to the stories couched in forms you might have ignored until now, the embroidery and the artwork, the Facebook Live videos and the podcasts. We’ve always kept telling our stories. We’ve always filled the world and shaken the very stones of this earth with them.