Not Victims, Not Risks, Not Impressed

By Guest Contributor

This letter was co-authored by three Middlebury survivors. It is not our intention to speak for all survivors, but rather to speak from our own situated experiences. The identities inhabited within adjudicatory processes are not divorced from the world outside of them – race, class, ability, gender, immigration status, etc. continue to matter. We appreciate the full range of survivors’ experiences; the decision to speak out is an entirely personal one.

Dear Editor,

As a collective of Middlebury survivors, we wish to respond to last week’s article “Reexamining Our Sexual Assault Investigative Process.” We intend to rebut many of the sentiments expressed in this article. Although the author claimed to abhor victim-blaming, we believe that they largely reproduced the violence of victim-blaming in their own writing.

The author’s primary concern surrounds the idea that some rapists are actually innocent; we must be critical of survivor’s stories. “Skepticism is the defining trait of any good learner,” including skepticism of lying survivors. Such concerns surrounding false reporting are grossly overstated. The FBI Bureau of Justice Statistics has collected data on false reporting for decades, consistently finding that the rate of false reporting in instances of rape is somewhere between two and eight percent. This isn’t to say that false reporting does not exist, but that it is incredibly rare. The rate of false reporting for rape is significantly less than the rates reported by the FBI for other serious crimes. Would we question a victim of robbery in the same way? The bottom line is that survivors of rape, as a category, continue to be marked as suspect, and misconceptions about false reporting have direct, negative consequences on why many survivors don’t report their assaults (see Lisak et. al. 2010).

The author also raised concerns over the preponderance of evidence standard, meaning the evidentiary standard used by colleges to adjudicate Title IX cases across the country (for more on the federal government’s justifications for the use of this standard, see the April 4, 2011 Dear Colleague Letter). It is worth noting that even under a preponderance of evidence standard, a finding of “not responsible” does not necessarily mean “innocent.” For a number of reasons, cases of interpersonal violence remain notoriously difficult to “prove,” and many methods of collecting evidence — such as through rape kits — remain incredibly traumatic and invasive.

The author would lead readers to believe that the preponderance of evidence standard causes potentially innocent respondents, such as John Doe, to be routinely expelled from this institution. Yet in contrast to the sentiments expressed in last week’s op-ed, the Doe case signals the degree of agency and recourse that respondents actually have, both through Title IX claims as well as through civil law.

Here are some facts that last week’s author failed to disclose to The Campus: Clery data indicates that Campus Security Authorities became aware of 17 possible allegations of forcible sex offense during the 2013 reporting period. Of those 17, College Disciplinary Actions data reveals that only five cases resulted in a sexual misconduct proceeding. Of those five, only three saw an end to their adjudication processes. Of the three that went through a complete proceeding, two cases resulted in a finding of “responsibility.” Of the two cases reaching “responsible” decisions, one respondent was suspended and one received “Official College Discipline.” To insinuate that the Middlebury system or society at large disfavor “alleged rapists” is nothing short of factually inaccurate.

“You want justice? Don’t go to the administration, go to the police.” As if this decision was so easy, or was an alleged rapist’s decision to make. There are a number of reasons why a survivor may elect to forego a criminal proceeding. Some Middlebury survivors have taken their respondents to court. But at the end of the day, it is up to each survivor to determine how they want to proceed — whether they elect to transfer, not report, report to the campus, confront their rapists themselves and/or pursue criminal or civil charges. Rape is often experienced as a site of great choicelessness, and who makes the decisions matters. It is not the job of society to tell survivors what justice should look like; it is up to the survivor to reassert their agency to best meet their own justice needs. For those of us who choose to co-exist on campus with our assailants, that decision is extremely difficult. Yet that remains our decision to make.

The one thing that we’ll agree with the author on is that Middlebury’s SMDVS policy is a highly imperfect and adversarial process; “The College’s system for dealing with sexual assault does not give you what you deserve, regardless of whether you are an alleged victim or alleged perpetrator of violence.” This reality was echoed by a video made by Middlebury survivors a year ago entitled Middlebury Unmasked (go/unmasked). Each choice comes with unfortunate consequences, yet we stand firm in the belief that it remains a survivor’s task to analyze the array of options before them and decide which option(s) they should pursue.

The author of last week’s op-ed emphasized their own feelings of isolation as they underwent their campus judicial process. Does the author seriously think that their sense of isolation would have been lessened during a more visible proceeding in a court of law? For survivors, we’d argue that such experiences of isolation in this community are likely amplified. Isolation is pervasive in sentiments which reduce survivors’ lived experiences to nothing more than (a heteronormative) “he said, she said.” Our feelings of isolation are augmented by the enduring impacts of our trauma, including PTSD. Our trauma is by no means neatly contained in one night; in terms of attaining “justice,” there is no silver bullet.

“If someone approaches you and asks “did you do it” it feels an awful lot like the “are you sure?” question we choose not to ask alleged victims.” We’d like to debunk the author’s notion of a “post-victim-blaming era” right now. It simply does not exist. Survivors are still asked “are you sure?” in a number of arenas — within sexual misconduct processes, within criminal court and within our friend groups and families. We are still asked “are you sure?” in op-eds which would call into question our capacity for truth or our ability to make decisions for ourselves.

The fact of the matter is that many Middlebury survivors often feel the need to reassert our voices in this community, even in the smallest of ways. That’s exactly what we’re doing in this letter. We are deeply convinced that the judicial process at Middlebury leaves much to be desired, yet we also believe firmly in our rights to pursue our educations free of sexual violence. Unlike proceedings in criminal court, the heart of Title IX requires educational institutions to bear some responsibility for our experiences within them. The irony of last week’s op-ed is that it replicated the violence that many survivors experience in the aftermath of their rapes; under a barrage of disbelief, we were once more forced to take time out of our educations to defend ourselves from tired stereotypes.

We are multidimensional, and we are so much more than the passive “victim” reproduced in last week’s op-ed. Many of us have felt isolated and alone in our experiences, but we are complex human beings who are also full of joy, desire, empowerment and opinions. We need not be spoken for, and we reject the author’s notion of protection. We are an integral part of this community, and we have a right to be here and to continue to take up space. The resolution mechanisms for these sorts of cases remain imperfect and limited, yet it’s our job as claimants to pause and decide which resolution mechanism seems like the lesser of several evils at the time. To insinuate that survivors’ don’t or can’t take into account the treatment of their perpetrators when selecting a resolution mechanism is insulting.

Moving forward, many of us remain committed to reforming the judicial process and continuing to assert our right to a violence-free education. Some of us remain interested in the possibility of using restorative justice to address campus claims through a more harm-centered discourse. Yet one thing must be made clear: if you truly support survivors, you will empower them with the agency to determine their unique path moving forward. You have not been in our shoes and you do not get to pretend to see with our eyes. This never has been — nor will it ever be — your decision to make.


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