Recently, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) issued recommendations to the White House on how to properly respond to college rape. Seeing the title of the page–RAINN Recommends White House Focus on Criminal Justice Response to College Rape–instantly made me panic. I’m an organizer with ED ACT NOW, a national campaign calling for better federal enforcement of Title IX, and have worked and met with many survivors and activists. I have had the opportunity to hear a wide range of reasons as to why survivors have turned to their schools, rather than the police, to address the sexual violence they endured. One of the most frequently-used reasons I have heard – especially from people of marginalized identities – is that they were drawn to school adjudication precisely because it wasn’t a part of the so-called “criminal justice system.”
One of the main reasons that the issue of campus sexual violence even has became a priority for the executive branch of the US government is thanks to a movement using the power of Title IX to assert students’ rights to campuses free from gender-based violence. Title IX is about civil rights and not criminal prosecution; it prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. When an organization as large and influential as RAINN makes recommendations that are completely out of touch with the desires of the people spearheaded the movement that even made the creation of the White House Task Force possible, this is cause for concern.
Throughout the document, RAINN raises very important points and provide recommendations that I believe would be beneficial for students’ safety. Unfortunately, there are several especially troubling recommendations and positions that stood out as potentially disastrous for many survivors.
If it’s broken, don’t fix it – just use it more
RAINN doesn’t seem too disturbed by the criminal justice system’s acknowledged flaws:
We urge the federal government to explore ways to ensure that college and universities treat allegations of sexual assault as they would murder and other violent felonies. The fact that the criminal justice process is difficult and imperfect, while true, is not sufficient justification for bypassing it in favor of an internal system that will never be up to the challenge.
In the days since I read RAINN’s list of recommendations, I’ve seen multiple stories highlighting the downfalls of the prison industrial complex, further solidifying my views that the system is ill-equipped and sometimes straight-up hostile to survivors of gender-based violence. Two of these stories included a judge who overturned a conviction because he deemed that the survivor didn’t “act like a victim” enough and a Detroit police officer recently charged with sexual assault while responding to a domestic violence call. And let’s not forget about the backlog of sexual assault evidence collection kits, which has been notorious enough to get its own story arc in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
It is difficult enough for survivors of rape to get their assailants convicted. In fact, RAINN recognizes on their website that a whopping 97% of rapists never see a day in jail. What about the other forms of sexual violence–such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and domestic violence–that often come hand-in-hand with rape? The system falls extremely short in holding perpetrators of these acts accountable. Over winter break, I watched an entire series dedicated to highlighting the shortfalls of the court system when it comes to stalking, which often ends in very tragic consequences.
And somehow this is the answer to campus sexual violence? As Alexandra wrote for Al Jazeera in response, “We cannot fix university adjudicating systems by outsourcing the work to a structure even more deeply flawed and resistant to reform.”
Moving away from alternative remedies
It is one thing for an organization to say that they believe that one option is the best option. It is a whole other thing to promote it as the only option while encouraging the de-emphasis of other methods to the detriment of survivors who do not want to use the prison industrial complex. In their recommendations RAINN acknowledges that going through the courts can be a long, arduous process through an imperfect system, but they insist that it isn’t reason to not use it. I find it weird that while they don’t find the shortfalls of the criminal system bad enough to warrant forgoing it altogether, they think using the school judicial process is a hopeless cause.
I couldn’t help but feel that RAINN’s description of the the student judicial process sometimes read straight out of the blog posts of angry men’s rights activists and rape apologists who claim that campus violence should not be handled in the schools. Paul Elam, the founder of the men’s right’s blog A Voice For Men, who told The New Republic “We have a problem with feminists hyper-inflating rape statistics, creating a kind of hysteria on campus over a problem that needs due attention from law enforcement” has been vocal in his denouncement of the use of the school judicial procress. In its opposition to on-campus adjudication to address campus sexual violence, RAINN is not in good company.
I chose a school judicial process for many reasons. I was a young woman of color uncomfortable with the use of an institution that is often violent, distrustful, and discriminatory towards people who look like me, it was preferable to using the criminal court process. I reached out to my networks about reasons why they (or people they knew) turned to the school judicial system. Here is just a sampling of the responses I received.
Because I’m a queer male and there was no way in hell I was going to the police. And any process that involved me not needing to sit in the same room as my abuser was a better process for me. – J.K.
…[M]y understanding at the time was that [the criminal justice system] was long, traumatic, very public, and had a low probability of yielding positive results. My understanding of the campus system was that it was short, traumatic, private, and also had a low probability of success. So I ultimately chose to go with the lesser of two evils. – H.B.
Given that my case involved alcohol, had no physical evidence, and was assault not rape I had zero faith the police would take it seriously. And in the event that they did I wasn’t prepared to put my life on hold for a court case. I just wanted to be able to finish my degree.
Also, while I want his life to be a painful hell my vision of that isn’t him being in jail but his actions being recognized and condemned by his/my community. – A.B.
One survivor shared how it took almost two years to get her evidence processed and needed the school system to provide immediate remedies for the assault they endured. Others shared how their history with their assailant, delay in reporting their cause, or overall distrust of the criminal court system made them opt to only go through the school or use it simultaneously with the courts. These responses give a clear indication as to why moving away from using on-campus procedures would leave many survivors out in the cold. Using them instead of reporting to the police and seeking justice through the courts just isn’t an option for many of us: it is the option.
The “forgotten” art of risk reduction
RAINN thinks it is really important that society talks about “increasing personal safety” when it comes to rape. Since messaging that focuses on potential victims’ behavior to avoid sexual assault is so rare. A quick peruse of this site will show multiple posts showing time and time again that victim-blaming messaging just won’t go away — and sometimes is repackaged by supposed allies as “risk reduction.” The report reads:
As anyone who has worked on rape prevention knows, risk-reduction messaging is a sensitive topic. Even the most well-intentioned risk-reduction message can be misunderstood to suggest that, by not following the tips, a victim is somehow to blame for his or her own attack. Recent survivors of sexual violence are particularly sensitive to these messages, and we owe it to them to use them cautiously.
Still, they are an important part of a rape prevention program. To be very clear, RAINN in no way condones or advocates victim blaming. Sexual assault is a violent crime and those who commit these crimes are solely responsible for their actions. That said, we believe that it is important to educate members of a campus community on actions they can take to increase their personal safety. In fact, we believe it’s irresponsible not to do so.
If there is one area where colleges are not lacking in addressing sexual violence it is in the art of placing the burden to avoid rape on potential victims. What advocates like RAINN call “risk reduction” — to be distinguished from programming that actually does reduce risk, like consent education — focuses on women’s behavior and often completely ignores the reality of college rape: that it is most often done by someone the victim knows and often trusts. Despite that reality, “risk reduction” tells us that somehow avoiding short skirts, walking around in groups, and watching our drinks somehow will be some sort of effective rape repellant. I can safely bet that in a nation-wise sweep of campus crime alerts, orientation programs, and other school-sponsored activities that deal with sexual violence, it would not be difficult to find the use (or perhaps even the emphasis) of risk reduction on every campus. Yet studies have shown that it just doesn’t work. Considering how poorly it is consistently done and that sexual violence is not an issue that can be tackled individually through “increasing personal safety,” this recommendation seems to set the stage to continue the cycle of schools adopting the position that the onus on potential victims rather than perpetrators to stop rape. Encouraging the inclusion of community risk reduction techniques such as bystander intervention in campus programs have the potential to be a lot more effective.
“True” primary prevention
RAINN has an interesting interpretation of what they view to be “true” primary prevention. In the anti-violence field, primary prevention is usually used to refer to stopping violence before it even starts through initiatives such as education. However, RAINN’s idea of prevention is also dependent on the use of the court systems. The organization’s definition is deeply rooted in the use of prisons and thus, some violence has to happen. RAINN writes:
You may note that we have not used the term “primary prevention,” which is widely used in the field. That is because we have a different definition of primary prevention than many. We believe that the most effective — the primary — way to prevent sexual violence is to use the criminal justice system to take more rapists off the streets. Stopping a rapist early in his or her career can prevent countless future rapes.
How is this primary prevention, if we still have to have someone(s) commit the sexual violence and others endure its trauma? Depending on a predator to violate a person first to have them punished is not the way I see prevention. And the onus is not just on a predator to act in this case; we have to then depend on the survivors to report and cooperate with the system, which in turn places responsibility on them to be a part of this “prevention.” The idea of survivors being responsible for the prevention of rape is problematic for a variety of reasons, which have been covered by Alexandra before.
The power of acknowledging the needs of marginalized survivors
Overall, what makes RAINN’s list of recommendations particularly troubling is their acknowledgement and dismissal of very valid concerns that many survivors and allies have long held when it comes to addressing sexual violence. There will never be a consensus in society — or even the anti-sexual violence community — about what would be the most effective way to provide justice for survivors and make safer communities. However, that does not mean we should not take the time to consider the harm that has been and can be done by our current systems. This is why some people, particularly communities of color, have turned to transformative justice as an alternative to the prison industrial complex.
This not the first time that I’ve had a problem with RAINN’s position when it comes to legal issues. Last year, I wrote about my disappointment with their praise of a Supreme Court ruling on allowing DNA collection of all people arrested for (but not convicted of) serious crimes, which could have very negative consequences for over-policed communities of color. The reason why I continue to follow RAINN’s worth is that as the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence non-profit organization, RAINN has undoubtedly helped survivors of a wide range of identities. This makes it even more important for the organization to consider and recognize the needs, motives, and experiences of these survivors and see how the organization’s positions could make those who already feel overlooked in mainstream conversations about sexual violence even more marginalized.
Wagatwe Wanjuki was once deemed an “exceptionally articulate African-American student” by an Obama administration member after expressing her views on fighting campus sexual violence.