I help students who have been
accused of sexual misconduct get into other schools
or into grad school. Don’t turn off the video yet. I’m not an
assaulter apologist. I want to eradicate
sexual assault on campus. Sexual assault
is unacceptable, and survivors need the support
of the people around them. The number may be as high as
one in four college women being assaulted
during their college years. But we can’t punish our way
out of this problem. We need to respond
to this epidemic in terms of what it really is — a public health issue. That starts by
recognizing the gray zone. Let me show you what I mean. Colleges define sexual
assault as any type of unwanted sexual touching. I have a student
who was accused of sexual assault because
of an unwanted hug; others for rape. Stealing is wrong
across the board, but some stealing
is shoplifting gum, and some stealing
is grand theft auto. We don’t call those
by the same name. We don’t punish them with
the same consequences. With students, it’s
the same thing. We need different words
for different kinds of wrongdoing. I worked on one case where
a young man and woman hooked up. They both agreed
that she said yes, but she said she
didn’t mean it. She said she said yes and
faked an orgasm in order to get out of the
room more gracefully. My student was
found responsible for sexual assault
and suspended for two and a half years. This is an extreme case, but I
haven’t found that yes always means yes. Consent is not always
simple or clear cut, and we should
teach young people how to navigate confusing
moments instead of insisting it’s all black and white. When someone is accused
of sexual assault, we often think one person
is telling the truth and the other is lying. But from what I’ve
seen, both students are sincerely
reporting their biased, externally influenced, and
often drunken memories. I worked with a
student who was accused of sexual assault for a
hookup where both sides agreed consent was given. The accuser began crying
during sex, and it stopped. But she says he didn’t
stop right away. My student insists he
stopped as soon as he realized she was crying. Neither of these
students is lying. We shouldn’t frame
every disagreement as a disagreement between
a truth-teller and a liar. There are a lot of
other possibilities. Not all my clients
are men, by the way. Two freshmen women got
drunk, and they ended up hooking up with a guy. Both feel that they were
raped by this young man, and one of them chose to
file a complaint against him with the school. During the course of
that investigation, she came to feel that the
other female freshman who was part of the three-way
had also assaulted her. That woman became my student. She was found responsible
for sexual misconduct and suspended for
three and a half years for an incident in which
she feels she was raped. When the narrative
is black and white, victims can become
perpetrators. All of these stories
and most of my cases have one thing in common — alcohol abuse. Excessive drinking
in college is a key piece driving
this epidemic, so let’s stop ignoring it. We’re afraid to talk about
the role of alcohol abuse, because we rightly don’t
want to blame victims. But I’m talking about
preventing people from becoming perpetrators. If the mission is to
end sexual assault, we need to lean into the
gray zone, not erase it. Let’s stop equating a
good college experience with getting wasted all the time. Let’s create specific terms
that name specific actions. Let’s teach the nuances of consent and good communication, And most importantly,
let’s treat sexual assault on campus like a
public health issue. That means preventing,
not just punishing. We’re never going to expel our way
out of this problem.