Betsy DeVos and “Real” Rape

By Gail Ukockis | (Informed Comment) | – –

            When I was in college in the early eighties, the dorm staff told us females to get escorts if we had to walk outside after dark. Watch out for the dark bushes in front of the dorm building, they warned us. Each communal bathroom also had rape whistles in case an attacker was hiding in a stall.

            Those concerns were about “real” rapes committed by evil men, blitz attackers who struck at random. Nobody warned us about date/acquaintance rapes because that concept was not yet known on my campus. Once a college friend told me about her friend who had been craving a cigarette. She went over to the men’s dorm area to ask for a smoke. Some guys invited her into their room, then locked the door. They ordered her to take off her shirt.

            “What happened next?”

            My friend only shook her head sadly. I will never know what happened to that young woman. If she had been sexually assaulted, though, we would not have called it rape she was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and her dorm mates were “just being jerks.” Until recently, many rape victims did not consider their experiences to be “real” rapes. Jackson Katz, an advocate against gender violence, quoted one woman as saying, “I have been raped twice and have had several other sexual assaults. I was not even fully aware that I had been raped either time until much later. It was so ingrained in my mind, personality, behavior, or whatever that this was how things are in the world. I believed that men had a right to my body and I was supposed to let them.”

            Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has recently created a controversy by limiting Title IX protections for campus rape victims. During her September 7 speech, she stated that the school administrations were acting as “kangaroo courts” that were destroying the lives of young men through false accusations. Although I fully support the rights of any accused person to a fair hearing, I do not agree with her assertion that the schools’ attempts to enforce Title IX are fatally flawed. Instead, I think that Betsy DeVos is trying to revive the idea that the only “real” rape is one committed by a crazed stranger lurking behind a dark bush.

            All sexual assaults, whether by a stranger or acquaintance, are horrific crimes. However, some people want to return to the “good old days” of considering only stranger rapes as “legitimate” and any other type of attack as just a misunderstanding. The flippant remark by a DeVos staff member that 90 percent of campus rape accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk’” was later retracted, but the damage was done. Last week, DeVos spent equal time with men’s rights groups, and one of which claimed that 41 percent of all rape accusations were false. The government estimate is only 2 to 4 percent.

This debate over numbers is a debate on whether “nice” college boys could really be rapists. The fresh-faced Brock Turner, who was caught attacking an unconscious woman, is one symbol of this trend. The media called him the “Stanford swimmer” instead of “perpetrator,” as if his academic record or athletic accomplishments even mattered. Perhaps if he had been an African American attending a less prestigious school, the media might have stressed the crime itself. Meanwhile, Turner’s friend wrote that he had merely made a mistake by drinking too much and having “clouded judgement.” She stressed that real rapists were only those who would kidnap a woman from a parking lot.

            In other cases, the “alleged victim” morphs into an “accuser” who is out to ruin a young man’s life. The 2011 Department of Education policy uses the word “complainant” while DeVos used the word “accuser” in her speech. Rape is the only crime that evokes that word—nobody pressing charges against a burglar would be called an “accuser.”

The painful truth is that a trusted person can sometimes be a rapist. I once knew a college student coping with the aftermath of a rape by a male friend. She had trusted him enough to let him into her dorm room, which would make some people consider the attack as not a “real” rape.

            Despite what DeVos and her allies in the men’s rights movement may think, “real” rape is forced sex in any circumstance. “Real” rape is often denied by those claiming that most rape accusations are false. “Real” rape is about facing the truth that a “promising young man” can harm somebody who is not at fault. Until we accept the uncomfortable facts about “real” rape, then, we cannot fight effectively against this ongoing crisis.


Gail Ukockis, PhD, MSW, MA, is an educator and social worker with an eclectic background that includes graduate studies in history. For eleven years, Dr. Ukockis taught a women’s issues course at Ohio Dominican University, which served as the foundation for this textbook. Her research interests also include HIV/AIDS, cultural competence, and human trafficking. She is author of Women’s Issues for a New Generation: A Social Work Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBS from 2 weeks ago: “Betsy DeVos to revamp Title IX policies on sexual assault”

4 Responses

  1. ‘Real’ rape, dress codes (all about covering breast and thigh) are all of a piece. 95 years ago a woman smoking cigarettes was ‘loose.’ And if she smoked in public – maybe sipped a little bootleg gin – well, what shall we think of her?!?

    The oldest power grab of all – older than race, older than class – was when men seized control of women’s sexuality.

  2. DeVos is one of the aristocrats of the far-right oligarch families, specifically the Christian wing. If she’s doing this, it’s because of a larger ideological plan, like everything they do. The Baptists have wrestled with public statements that women are in fact inferior by nature. I think that one of the goals of the movement is to break the hold on Americans of the idea of equality before the law. That was inherent in abortion issues, but now it’s time for them to make it explicit: a woman is not the legal equal of a man.

    Which might be strange for a woman like DeVos. But recall that when our European ancestors really had aristocratic rule, there were countless noblewomen who did their part to defend gender inequality, because it was a foundation of the system that also enshrined class inequality and their class privileges placed them over far more of the population. Like the wives of slaveowners in the American South, they knew which privileges really mattered.

  3. It does seem odd that a nearing 60 year-old woman who rarely attended a school that was not at home is intent on re-enabling rich white campus rapists?

  4. Rape like murder is a very serious crime. It involves lifetime consequences. For that reason, the law requires substantial evidence. If the barrier of evidence is lowered to the level that many of these college commissions have chosen, i.e. where a simple accusation or denouncement is grounds for expulsion, a rape accusation becomes the simplest of revenge tactics. Anonymity and the destruction of the education and life of one’s target.

    Assuming women are capable of no evil or are somehow better than men is the worst kind of sexism. Anyone who knows women well, through either work or friendship, knows that outside of inclination to physical violence (though there are exceptions here as well), women are not much different than men. Men, as you know, steal and defraud one another legally (Microsoft twisting suppliers arms not to supply pre-installed Linux or negotiate an acquisition in bad faith to steal technology), even start wars of aggression legally (G.W. Bush, Tony Blair come to mind). Women do exactly the same things (think of Carly Fiorina’s reign at HP, Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s prime minister and Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state; in earlier generations you have Queen Elizabeth I and Tsarina Ekaterina the Great). If you’d prefer a fictional representation, please take Lady Macbeth as an example. Imagine what a Lady Macbeth could do with the new college rules on sex. She could eliminate rivals without killing them (she would not need to do the bedding herself that would be too obvious, she could manipulate minions into it).

    Making naive simpletons and pastoral milk maids of today’s savvy young female undergraduates is absurd. The ubiquity of free pornography on today’s internet means that almost every twelve year old knows more about sex than most nineteen year olds did twenty years ago (post-sexual revolution). Most women by twenty one are astonishingly sexually sophisticated.

    Day after regrets are now becoming fair game for rape accusations. Men have sex pushed on us when we are inebriated. Women have sex pushed on them when they are inebriated. Indeed, many women feel that they need to have a few drinks to be able to relax and enjoy sex with a new partner. Sex is complex. Sexually active men and women both have intimate experiences which they regret and wish never happened. It’s part of life. There is a difference between a bad sexual experience and a violent rape. These new campus rules seem to be deliberately designed to eliminate that distinction. I’m not sure that with all the good intentions in the world we can bar people from bad sexual experiences without eliminating sexuality altogether.

    Of course, the social consensus has to be negotiated where the dividing line is between a bad experience and rape. If not, the etiquette of sexuality needs to change radically.

    If for instance a couple of drinks renders a man or woman incapable of assent, I’d suggest it’s time to close the bars on campus and to start selling alcohol field tests which include DNA sampling and a consent document. The consent document would have to be signed and witnessed and delivered to a university commission a day before the act of coitus. The alcohol field test with DNA sampling would have to be administered within an hour before the actual act.

    This is very technically complicated. As a lower tech solution we could enforce a mixed audience of peers, 3 men and 3 women minimum, at least two of whom are chosen by each sexual party, to any spontaneous act of coitus on campus. That way the university commission would be assured of competent witnesses. Alcohol would still have to be banned otherwise the participants may not really mean the assent they offer and the witnesses testimony would no longer be reliable. Witnesses of course could intervene immediately in the case of perceived absence of consent – special training should be made available to those who wish it.

    Solutions like those above would put an end to the gray zone of sexuality. In the absence of that kind of clarity, rape remains a very serious crime and the threshold for conviction as for all crimes should remain sufficiently high that a simple accusation does not become an automatic conviction. Teaching incoming freshmen and freshwomen some guidelines about safe behavior would save everyone considerable grief. Getting smashed on tequila then heading over to the football team’s dorms (where they’ve probably been partying with their own clouded judgment) was always a bad idea. I’d argue the football team should learn that allowing in such visitors might not be a good idea. Yet indiscriminately destroying young men’s lives on hearsay or making them blindly fear intimacy doesn’t seem a real solution to the complexity of human sexuality.

    We go to a lot of trouble to teach young people to drive safely. The roads are dangerous. We should probably spend an equal amount of effort in teaching them how to navigate their own sexuality and sexual situations safely.

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