This morning, the White House released a fact sheet titled "Not Alone—Protecting Students from Sexual Assault," which details the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault's proposed series of actions to:
(1) identify the scope of the problem on college campuses, (2) help prevent campus sexual assault, (3) help schools respond effectively when a student is assaulted, and (4) improve, and make more transparent, the federal government's enforcement efforts. We will continue to pursue additional executive or legislative actions in the future.I'm glad the Obama administration is concerned with sexual assault on college campuses. That said, I have some real concerns about some of the approaches in this fact sheet, particularly around confidentiality and bystander intervention.
Confidentiality: Under the section heading "Helping Schools Respond Effectively When a Student Is Sexually Assaulted: Confidentiality, Training, Better Investigations, and Community Partnerships," the first two bullet-points read:
* Many survivors need someone to talk to in confidence. While many survivors of sexual assault are ready to press forward with a formal complaint right away, others aren't so sure. For some, having a confidential place to go can mean the difference between getting help and staying silent. Today, the Department of Education is releasing new guidance clarifying that on-campus counselors and advocates can talk to a survivor in confidence. This support can help victims come forward, get help, and make a formal report if they choose to.There are two major problems here.
* We are providing a sample confidentiality and reporting policy. Even victims who make a formal report may still request that the information be held in confidence, and that the school not investigate or take action against the perpetrator. Schools, however, also have an obligation to keep the larger community safe. To help them strike this balance, we are providing schools with a sample reporting and confidentiality policy, which recommends factors a school should consider in making this decision.
One: "For some, having a confidential place to go can mean the difference between getting help and staying silent." First of all, note that "staying silent" is implicitly defined as filing a formal complaint. That is not the only way that survivors can and do raise their voices. Secondly, there is an embedded implication that the only barrier to justice is survivors "breaking their silence" by filing a formal report, which is categorical bullshit. Countless numbers of survivors have tried to file formal complaints, with university administrators and/or police, only to be turned away. The burden that is implicitly being put on survivors here is profoundly objectionable.
Two: Victims may request "that the school not investigate or take action against the perpetrator," but schools "have an obligation to keep the larger community safe" and are empowered with the "decision" as to whether to take action. These two things cannot coexist. This sounds an awful lot like schools are being empowered to compel victims to participate in prosecutions, which is incompatible with providing a safe and confidential resource to survivors.
Bystander Intervention: An emphasis on bystander intervention is problematic for a whole lot of reasons, not least of which is that not everyone has the same capacity to safely intervene.
And, much like the increasing tendency to prosecute survivors who are unwilling to participate in prosecutions, bystander intervention initiatives are headed in a "criminalize bystanders who fail to intervene" direction.
This is something about which Lauren Chief Elk has written a lot on Twitter, and I highly recommend this Storify (shared with Lauren's permission and compiled by @mizblossom) detailing some of the ways in which bystander intervention initiatives can cause more problems than they solve.
Tasking potential victims with prevention, tasking bystanders with intervention, tasking survivors with formally reporting, and prosecuting survivors and bystanders who don't engage with law enforcement on law enforcement's terms is not effective rape prevention.
Which is to say nothing of the fact that these initiatives presume that "the system" is already working fine for survivors when they do try to pursue justice through formal channels.
To be clear: I'm not saying it's wrong to provide a(n ostensibly) safe space for victims to report, nor am I saying it's wrong to encourage people to intervene if they can safely do so. What I'm saying is that the emphasis on these things, coupled with increasing tendencies to criminalize survivors' and bystanders' failure to act, is actively harmful to meaningful and effective rape prevention.
Where we're headed is a culture of carcerality to compel compliance with ineffective law enforcement where there are more survivors and bystanders being prosecuted than rapists.