The dangers of false equivalence in sexual assault

By Tsuyoshi Onda

By the time the 11 white, male Republican senators of the Senate Judiciary Committee employed a special prosecutor to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the strategy was clear: this was not really about hearing or respecting her story. To many, the dominant discourse leading up to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh illustrated the disturbing false equivalency that pervades the way we treat and talk about sexual assault survivors and perpetrators.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa emphasized the “important and serious role” the special prosecutor plays on behalf of the GOP senators — he lauded the prosecutor’s objectivity in hearing out Dr. Blasey and finding the truth, which teed up the brutal cross-examination that ensued. This was not an attempt at “hearing” Dr. Blasey, but instead a demand that she relive her trauma under the thinly-veiled premise of due process. What was framed as a fact-finding exercise was actually a wicked and deliberate tactic to equate the trauma of a survivor of sexual assault with the experience of the alleged perpetrator. The entire process was a painstaking reminder of the societal indifference towards Dr. Blasey’s life-altering experience, that somehow his pain was equally — if not more — acute.

Whatever doubt anyone had about the motives of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee was completely erased when Donald Trump made explicit the subtext we felt from the hearing. “It’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” lamented Trump.

This rhetoric is not new nor is it purely a partisan political tactic. The conversations and actions (too often inaction) surrounding sexual assault are entrenched in a society that has normalized the preferential treatment and privileges afforded to those who benefit most from the status quo. For men, it is a refusal to examine ourselves and hold each other accountable. It is falsely equating the lifting of historically underrepresented groups with the threat of losing ground or representation, while underlying it all is simply the fear of losing the advantages of being the oppressive class in an inequitable status quo.

Perhaps the best proof of how these pervasive and toxic ideologies are produced and reproduced is how they manifest as policy. Recent changes by the current administration to the enforcement of Title IX protections demonstrate how this false equivalence gets embedded as policy, and in turn, how policy creates an even more hostile environment around sexual assault and harassment. The current administration is moving forward with a proposal to eliminate the Obama administration’s guidance on Title IX prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools. The guidelines, based on the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, “require universities to swiftly investigate complaints of sexual assault and offer protections to survivors, and ban schools from retaliating against those who file sexual assault complaints.” The administration’s revisions to this policy roll back these provisions and severely blunt these guidelines.

Betsy DeVos argues that the guidelines from the Obama administration allow schools too much latitude, with a lower standard of proof required in disciplinary hearings than usually would be allowed in criminal cases. DeVos continues to hammer the importance of due process in sexual assault cases, where the evidence needs to be laid out and examined thoroughly and objectively. Reforms that are designed to make protections for survivors of sexual assault less stringent are not about procedural fairness but are an attack and imposition on the safety and well-being of those survivors. Treating an accusation of sexual assault as a false accusation is barricading the status quo and making a dangerous and difficult situation even worse.

Suggesting that there are similarities between the repercussions to the survivor for bringing forward an allegation of sexual assault and those of someone who is falsely accused is not only egregious to the experiences and trauma of having to speak out against a system that is primed to discredit the claim, but also factually misrepresents the data on sexual assault. Approximately two-thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported, and of the ones reported, only between 2 and 10 percent of accusations are false. While it is unclear how exactly the Title IX rollbacks will play out, policies that reduce protections preserve and rehash the extremely toxic narrative that somehow, sexual assault is trivial in the grand scheme of things. A policy that centers “fairness” in the procedure tells survivors that we’re not willing to genuinely listen.

The narrative of listening to “both sides” or “all sides” in cases of sexual assault doesn’t take into account the substantive and unequal differences in the two experiences and the disproportionate hardships that follow. For those of us who are afforded the privilege of turning the other cheek when we want to and who can be selective in when we choose to consider these issues, there needs to be pause, vulnerability, and self-reflection. The acceptance of privilege is only the first step.

Tsuyoshi Onda is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Senior Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.