Poor Women, Wealthy Men, and the New School Sexual Assault Regulations

Because of the media’s focus on the coronavirus, one story that has gone somewhat (but not completely) under the radar is the changes that United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put into place for regulations that replaced Obama-era guidelines on how sexual assault accusations are dealt with at schools.

According to National Public Radio, which did a rather thorough piece on these changes, “Among the most significant changes are new regulations aimed at beefing up protections for accused college students, by mandating live hearings by adjudicators who are neither the Title IX coordinator nor the investigator, and real-time cross examination of each student by the other student’s lawyer or representative.”[1] I want to zero in on the change I quoted here, because this is a regulation that will likely end up harming poor women the most and helping wealthy men the most.

In making this argument, it’s worth saying that the real-time cross examination is something that advocates worry will open up wounds for survivors of the assaults under investigation. While yes, there are absolutely male survivors of sexual assault, as well as survivors who do not fall within the male-female gender binary,[2] this is a change that disproportionately hurts women in general, as women of school age are much more likely to be survivors of sexual violence than men of school age.[3] Therefore, when we’re talking about cross examination opening up wounds for survivors, we are most of the time talking about opening up wounds for female survivors of sexual assault. This change will harm women in general.

However, this change will harm poor women the most. This real-time cross examination by the other student’s lawyer or representative, in effect, results in a double whammy for poor people who are survivors: emotional wounds opened up by cross examination by the defendant, and then an inability to spend the money to hire a good lawyer or representative to answer in any effective way to the cross examination. As most survivors are women, this double whammy for poor people who are survivors will predominantly affect poor women. I just hope that there are lawyers/representatives out there willing to potentially do some pro bono work here because otherwise, I don’t see how poor women who are survivors stand much of a shot at getting justice in sexual assault cases under the DeVos guidelines.

On the other hand, these new regulations will likely end up helping wealthy men because: a) most perpetrators are men and b) the male perpetrators who come from wealthy families will be able to spend on the best lawyer/representative money can buy in order to fend off any accusations. Unless the survivor comes from a situation of economic wealth and can have the ability to hire good lawyers, the side of the wealthy male perpetrator is well positioned to win the legal case.

As to the results of these DeVos changes, I do tend to agree with advocates that this will likely have a chilling effect on reporting in general. However, I fear it will have a particularly chilling effect on reporting from poor women survivors of sexual assault. While some people may take pride in being right on something, this is a case where I really hope I am wrong.

Please note that because of Memorial Day, I will not publish a post next Monday.


[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/05/06/851733630/federal-rules-give-more-protection-to-students-accused-of-sexual-assault

[2] And if you’re a male survivor of assault or a survivor who doesn’t fit within the male-female gender binary, your story is no less valid because you are not a woman.

[3] https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence