As victims go, college men who contend they have been wrongly punished for sexual assault don’t get a lot of sympathy. But the fallout from the debacles surrounding the University of Virginia and Lena Dunham rape allegations could change that.
Sherry Warner Seefeld, president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality, says she’s received a number of first-time calls in the last few days from parents whose sons are facing suspension or expulsion for sexual assaults they say they didn’t commit.
What’s more, she said, some parents are looking at the option of suing not just the university but also the accuser. More than a dozen universities are facing lawsuits by men who say they were railroaded by campus tribunals under federal pressure to crack down on the so-called “rape culture” in higher education.
“I think it’s possible we could see more of that kind of thing happening,” Ms. Seefeld said. “I’ve certainly been in contact with families who have at least discussed with attorneys suing the person who made the claim, as opposed to the university.”
She stressed that nobody wants to see rapists go unpunished, but that the problem on campus now is too many innocent men are having their lives upended based on sexual assault claims that are no more credible — and often less credible — than the Nov. 19 article in Rolling Stone about a U.Va. student or Ms. Dunham in her book, “Not That Kind of Girl.”
Both accounts have had details crumble under media scrutiny. Rolling Stone on Friday posted an apology for failing to check the story with other sources, while the U.Va. student, identified only as “Jackie,” has reportedly retained a lawyer.
Ms. Dunham’s publisher, Random House, issued a statement Tuesday to the Wrap saying that the man identified as the rapist “Barry” in her book was not “Barry One,” the former Oberlin College classmate who matched some of her description. “Barry One,” who was found by Breitbart News, has hired an attorney and set up a legal defense fund.
On Wednesday, “Barry One” released a statement through Breitbart in which he asked Ms. Dunham why she waited until Tuesday to clear his name, even though he broached the issue with Random House nine weeks ago.
“The last nine weeks, spent both wrongfully accused and ignored, were frightening for me and my family,” he said, adding that “because of the delay, my reputation has sustained irreparable harm.”
Victims’ rights advocates worry that the highly publicized cases will discourage rape victims from seeking justice, but Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says he hopes the result will be improved campus due process for both the accused and accuser.
“If there’s one thing this situation has shown, it’s that all cases benefit from scrutiny, and that helps both victims and accused,” Mr. Cohn said. “For victims, when their cases are put through scrutiny and they survive it, it removes question marks, which helps them move forward with their lives and get real accountability. For accused students, the scrutiny will hopefully appropriately exonerate those who are innocent.”
Right now too many universities essentially place the burden of proof on the accused, say critics, while victims’ rights advocates argue that to question an accuser’s account revictimizes the victim.
“A lot of the activism is focused on a lynch-mob mentality, and that’s truly unfortunate because when cases aren’t put under scrutiny, even legitimate ones will breed doubters,” said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
President Obama weighed in Wednesday on the issue by saying that it was important “to not to focus on one case, but to focus on the broader concerns that I have about how women, and sometimes men, are subjected to sexual assaults.”
“We’re focused at the White House on making sure that we’re raising awareness. Part of it is passing laws, but part of it is also changing minds and culture,” Mr. Obama said. “Not only to make it safe for those who’ve been assaulted to come forward, but also to change the mindset of men, particularly our young men who are coming up, so that they understand that no means no, that respect for women and individuals is what makes you strong.”
Ms. Seefeld cited a Dec. 6 op-ed in The Washington Post by civil-rights lawyer Zerlina Maxwell, who said, “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.
”That’s not Ms. Seefeld’s experience. Her son Caleb Warner was suspended in 2010 after being accused of rape, and even though the accuser was later charged by police with making a false report, he never returned to the University of North Dakota or earned his bachelor’s degree.
“I understand being traumatized as a victim of a crime, but it’s a Catch-22 for anybody who is accused,” Ms. Seefeld said. “Literally speaking, a person can make an accusation, and it is supposed to be believed without question from the very start, and if that person is mistaken in details, it can all be explained away by the trauma of the crime. So it is a perfect storm of, ‘You are guilty if anybody points a finger at you.’ ”
Ms. Seefeld said she routinely speaks to college men who are kicked out of school based on the “preponderance of the evidence” standard for sexual assault now required by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“I got a call Friday from a young man who had called me earlier in the year. He had just received his letter [from the university],” she said. “He totally, 100 percent believed that he was going to be found innocent because he had all this evidence, all these facts, and he received a letter saying he was found guilty, and he was just devastated.”
At U.Va, all fraternity and sorority activity was suspended three days after the Rolling Stone article alleging a fraternity gang-rape appeared. The Phi Alpha Psi house was vandalized, and its members were identified on social media and accused of being rapists.
“Think of these young men,” Ms. Seefeld said. “I think that’s so horrific that people rushed to look at the membership list and make judgment calls based on their Facebook pages, as if they were the potential rapist. … I would hope there’s some care and concern generated for all of the young people involved, male or female. These are all our young adults, our children. These are people we love and care about.”