DC’s ‘scarlet letter’: a recipe for injustice

Marcus Bateman

Topics USA

Lawmakers in Washington, DC have proposed the idea of having a ‘scarlet letter’ that would permanently mark the transcripts of students who are investigated by campus authorities for sexual misconduct. If they are introduced, these markers would ‘follow [the accused] to new schools [and] into the workforce’.

Considering the Kafkaesque nature of campus sexual-assault proceedings, which infamously lack even the most basic elements of due process, and the vague (not to mention unromantic) definitions of consent that are often used in them, one would think requiring men who are convicted in these tribunals to be branded for life was a recipe for injustice. But that’s not even the worst part.

This scarlet letter wouldn’t just apply to students who are convicted of sexual misconduct, but also to those who ‘try to withdraw from school while under investigation’. You heard right: if a student tries to escape his inquisition, his life will still be ruined. When I forwarded this story to a bleeding-heart-liberal relative of mine, the first thing she said was, ‘Aren’t we in America?’. Apparently, men on college campuses are exempt from exercising the rights all Americans enjoy.

These men’s lives and careers could be put at huge risk, all because of a hysteria around sexual assault on campus that is based on misleading statistics and scaremongering. As with all moral panics, this one is replete with ironies and unintended consequences.

Fake courts, real punishment

In arguing for the scarlet letter, DC lawmakers argued that mere expulsion from college is an inadequate punishment for rape. No shit. How about, rather than increasing punishments for ‘Title IX’ convictions, and bringing in actual judges to rule on campus cases, we do away with these kangaroo courts altogether and leave it to the proper authorities. Scarlet letter? How about a jail cell?

The class divide

The crusade against campus sexual assault is led by upper-class young women who claim that they are at constant risk of being targeted. However, non-college women of the same age, who are often more disadvantaged, are at a far greater risk of being sexually assaulted. Apparently, giving trust-fund babies at Yale recourse for regretted sexual encounters is more important to ‘liberal’ activists than protecting society’s more vulnerable young women. Moreover, it should be noted that merely expelling rapists from college, instead of locking them up, only leaves them free to rape again – only this time, not on campus.

Throughout this crusade, activists have sought what Tom Wolfe called ‘the Great White Defendant’ – privileged frat-boys or athletes who, they claim, are the source of the trouble. However, like all arbitrary laws, campus tribunals disproportionately target the vulnerable. One student who is currently suing Amherst College in Massachusetts alleges that the college’s sexual-assault policy has only ever been used to punish male students of colour. A Harvard law professor has also argued that Title IX courts disproportionately impact ‘sexually stigmatised minorities’ – a harsh reminder that false accusations of rape against black men were not so long ago used to justify lynchings in the South. How quickly we forget.

The folly of witch-hunts

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has described the campus rape hysteria as today’s ‘moral panic, an extraordinary popular delusion, a madness of crowds’, which has led to calls for ‘increasingly draconian measures’ akin to ‘witch-hunts, blood libels, red scares… and satanic-ritual day-care prosecutions’.

As this moral panic wears on, and punishments become more draconian, lawmakers must recognise the truth: witch-hunts don’t get the actual witches.

Marcus Bateman is the pseudonym of a writer based in the US.

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Topics USA


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