Emma Sulkowicz

Paternalistic Delaware women lawmakers fight campus rape survivors on bill

How many times do we have to say it: cops aren’t the answer.

A group of Democratic women lawmakers in Delaware are pushing a bill that would require universities to turn rape reports over the police — without victims’ consent. As we’ve covered over and over again, rape survivors have been crystal clear that more police involvement will mean less reporting. Nearly nine in 10 say that, were campuses required to turn rape reports over to the cops without survivors’ consent, they believe fewer victims would report to anyone at all.

A coalition of Delaware student survivors have met with the legislators repeatedly, explaining that a bill that further enmeshes the police in campus processes will decrease reporting and, consequently, make their schools less safe. But the legislators won’t hear it. According to one of the student advocates, one lawmaker told the group that a victim who doesn’t report her rape is to blame for any other assaults committed by her attacker.

Often proponents of mandatory police referral bills like that in Delaware are blatantly sexist: they believe women as a class lie and, accordingly, that rape reports should go to juries, not schools. Bills like the Safe Campus Act in the U.S. House preclude universities from holding students accountable for sexual assault — unless victims go to the police first — even as it permits them to sanction students for any number of other disciplinary violations that, in a criminal court, would be prosecuted as crimes (physical assault, racial harassment, and drug possession, just to name a few). It’s clear the anxiety here isn’t about the violence itself but rather about the people who disproportionately experience it. Those people are presumed to lie, and accordingly must endure any number of additional reporting burdens not required of victims of other crimes.

The concerns animating the Delaware women lawmakers’ bill seem of a different flavor. Something far more insidious, a paternalism that whispers, I know better than you what you need. I know better than you what justice is or should be. I know better than you what will make students safe.

At work too is a deeply gendered expectation that survivors take care of others before themselves. As Alexandra has written, it’s the same victim-blaming logic that tasks women (rather than perpetrators) with not getting raped — extended. Report in order to protect potential future victims — even at the expense of your own safety and healing. It’s reminiscent of that timeless burden placed on women’s shoulders: De-prioritize your own needs in the face of others’. Care for others before yourself.

One of the Delaware student advocates, Sage Carson, told me in an email, “The women writing this bill are mothers, and looking to protect daughters. When we had our meeting it was pretty obvious they saw us as children, not young women. We are working hard to make it known that we are not children that need protection, but young adults who can make decisions ourselves.”

I thinks Sage is right. Perhaps because of age, or more degrees, or a (false) sense of their own objectivity for being completely removed from campus life, the legislators have claimed expertise, while dismissing the student survivors’ smarts and intimate knowledge of the problem as it is experienced on the ground.

I don’t want to conjure an intergenerational tension where (perhaps) there isn’t one. Feminists clash often, among generations and within them. Age and fancy degrees are just two tools that feminists have used to discount other feminists’ work, ideas, and (sources of) knowledge, while elevating their own. (Think: race, class, gender identity, ability.)

I also don’t want to collapse survivors into a monolith: Lots of us want (lots of) different things — including the option of reporting to the police. But that’s exactly the point: the Delaware House bill shrinks options, at the very moment when it should work hardest to expand them. For so many survivors — particularly those who are of color, trans, and/or undocumented — a bill that requires going to the cops in order to get justice on campus gives them the (non)choice between enduring abuse without the support of their school, or risking criminalization and deportation.

That’s no choice at all.

Sign Sage’s petition here.

Header image credit: Andrew Burton/Getty

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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