Conversations with Men

First there was Harvey Weinstein. Then there was Kevin Spacey and the director Brett Ratner. Then Jeffrey Tambor and Louis C.K. Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor. The accusations of sexual abuse that made the headlines were usually about famous men, and many of their victims were famous as well. Plenty of the allegations recounted…

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First there was Harvey Weinstein. Then there was Kevin Spacey and the director Brett Ratner. Then Jeffrey Tambor and Louis C.K. Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor. The accusations of sexual abuse that made the headlines were usually about famous men, and many of their victims were famous as well. Plenty of the allegations recounted abuses in the penthouse suites of luxury hotels. But ordinary people saw themselves in the stories, too. The boss who offered you extra shifts in exchange for a date. The meeting when you told the principal a classmate had raped you, and he suspended you instead. That time when you felt you could not say no. That time you said no, and it didn’t matter. So we said, “Me too.”

Others recognized themselves in a different aspect of the stories. They could be one of those men. They could be a name on a list.

Almost as soon as the first stories broke, critics and commentators raised concerns about the accused. What about due process?, they asked. I heard that question in two different tones. One was the even, perplexed voice of a real questioner, searching in good faith for answers: What is the best, fairest way to respond to troubling allegations? The other was indignant, loud, interrupting: How dare we threaten a man’s good name? How could that ever be fair? To these critics, any consequence at all was a violation of due process.

For those of us who had been involved in the movement to address campus sexual assaults, this backlash was familiar. In 2011, when I was an undergrad at Yale, I joined fifteen friends to file a complaint against the university with the U.S. Department of Education. By tolerating sexual harassment, including violence, against students like us, we said, the university had violated the law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools: Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments. The Department of Education investigated Yale and spurred it to change its policies. The school abandoned its opaque, labyrinthine reporting systems and débuted a clearer process for survivors to come forward. It also started publishing regular reports about what kinds of sexual-harassment complaints it had received and their outcomes, giving the community some insight into behind-the-scenes decisions. The process still wasn’t perfect, but it was much improved.

Around the same time, a friend of a friend named Dana Bolger was organizing against Amherst College’s handling of sexual abuses. We talked on the phone, and then over e-mail and on Facebook. Online, we connected with students and young alumni of other colleges who had faced similar issues. In those conversations, we swapped advocacy strategies, pooled our experiences, and came to see common threads. One was that few of us had known about our rights under Title IX when we needed them. During the summer of 2013, Dana and I decided to put together legal explainers for student survivors. We called the project Know Your IX. Working with other activists, we wrote up the basics of Title IX’s protections against sexual harassment and offered tips about organizing on campus. We published those resources on a Web site and distributed them on social media.

Know Your IX grew from a summer project to a national campaign. I wish I could say that it expanded because of our strategic insight. But the truth is that the scope of the problem and the need for an organized student voice was much greater than we had anticipated. Our first big action was a 2013 protest outside the Department of Education, at which we delivered a petition with more than a hundred and seventy-three thousand signatures, pushing the department to enforce Title IX and hold schools accountable for wrongdoings. Although we initially faced resistance from government officials, during the next few years many of our demands prompted changes in federal policy. The department started publicly announcing when its investigations turned up Title IX violations. It guaranteed that undocumented survivors could file Title IX complaints without risking deportation. And it clearly instructed schools to offer support services like mental-health care to survivors free of charge.

As would later happen with #MeToo, the successes of the Title IX movement came with critics—professors, lawyers, and pundits who found fault with the student movement and the new policies that schools were implementing. They worried that colleges, in particular, had “overcorrected.” Where once it was survivors who faced mistreatment, they opined, now alleged assailants were the ones who had to fear injustice. In particular, critics complained that disciplinary procedures often failed to protect the rights of students accused of sexual assault.

Some of the stories reported were deeply disturbing. A student at Wesley College, for example, was invited by administrators to what he believed was a preliminary conversation about a serious allegation against him. When he arrived, he learned it was instead a formal disciplinary hearing for which he’d had no opportunity to prepare. School administrators failed to provide him with full information about the accusation, or even with correct material about the school’s policies. That hearing earned Wesley a public reprimand from the Department of Education, in 2016. Similarly, in 2014, the University of Southern California faced a lawsuit from a student, identified as John Doe, who had been suspended after the school found him responsible for encouraging a gang rape of his sexual partner. A state court ruled against the university, holding that its process was unfair because Doe was never informed of what, exactly, he was accused of doing, and never given the opportunity to challenge the evidence against him.

I struggled with how to respond to these stories. I worried that critics would wrongly attribute schools’ procedural mistakes to the important progress student activists had made for survivors. But I also saw criticism of disciplinary procedures as a natural part of our project. Our whole purpose was to make schools respond to reports of sexual harassment fairly, so that no student would be unjustly deprived of the chance to learn and thrive. And I was hardly shocked that schools were sometimes mistreating students accused of sexual harms—after all, they had been doing the same to survivors for so long.

I started law school in 2013, and, as research for a paper, I spent a year reviewing lawsuits from students who claimed that they had been wrongly suspended or expelled for sexual assault. Their complaints of procedural defects echoed those I had long heard from survivors, as well as from students facing disciplinary charges that had nothing to do with sex. They were unaware of their rights. They never got the chance to tell their full story. The decision-making process was opaque and, to the extent it was discernible, appeared biased—either toward one side over the other, or toward protecting the university’s own interests. Of course, I thought, those problems should be fixed.

In her excellent book “Down Girl,” the philosopher Kate Manne describes what she calls “himpathy”: the common knee-jerk concern for men accused of wrongdoing, which casts aside the women they may have hurt. I share her disgust at this tendency. Yet, when I read accounts of accused students’ struggles to navigate disciplinary proceedings, I still had empathy, or at least sympathy. The fact is that sexual harassment is too prevalent for any of us to feel confident that we can maintain a cool distance. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we all love people who have been harassed, just as many of us have been. And many of us love someone who has been the harasser, likely without our knowing. This combination of prevalence and ignorance means that most of us, I think, have had a flash of a nightmare question: What if someone I love were accused of harassment? Of rape? What would I do, how would I feel, if someone named my college roommate? My husband? I like to think I would live my politics. I would want those I love held accountable if they had sexually abused someone. In the process, though, I would want them to be treated fairly and have the chance to present their account of what had happened, too.

I am wary of feeding a narrative that accused harassers are the true victims, the most deserving of our concern. But we can care about multiple things at once. We must.

Because of our overlapping interest in fairness for all students, Know Your IX was sometimes able to forge fruitful relationships with members of “the other side.” Away from the media, with room to admit ambiguity and uncertainty, we had conversations with advocates for alleged student harassers. When it came down to it, we could often find substantial agreement and distill what we actually disagreed about to no more than a few logistical questions. Many of us favored the same model for student disciplinary procedures, an “inquisitorial” hearing in which students can question one another through a neutral intermediary. Those conversations gave me hope that, with care and good faith, consensus was within reach. We could build procedures that treated all students equitably and with dignity.

But not all the critics of campus reforms were acting in good faith. Some spoke of “due process” when their real goal was impunity. In public, one Georgia state representative claimed that schools needed better procedures to investigate students accused of sexual assault. Privately, he bullied schools into letting particular accused students off the hook. Many of these critics misrepresented the facts, claiming that hysterical feminists had pressured schools to adopt policies whereby mere allegations warranted expulsion. If you don’t call a girl back the next day, she’ll report you to the dean and you’ll be out by noon! They repeated lies so many times that the inaccuracies made their way into national reporting as fact. Some of the most common false claims were that the Obama Administration invented the idea that Title IX applies to sexual assault (the Supreme Court confirmed that in 1992, and then again in 1998 and 1999), and that the Administration required schools to use a lower standard of evidence than most did before. (It mandated a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, but most schools were already using that.)

Anti-feminist zealots are, of course, infuriating. But I had a harder time dealing with the moderates and progressives whose procedural objections seemed rooted in sexist assumptions. They demanded that schools provide special protections to students accused of sexual harms that were unavailable to peers accused of other kinds of misconduct—as though a student who said she’d been raped was more likely to be lying than a student who said his roommate had punched him in the face, or berated him with racial slurs, or committed any of the other forms of misconduct that schools are regularly called on to address. Some critics on the left never acknowledged the young survivors on the other side of the table. Prominent attorneys with progressive credentials openly dismissed sexual violence as trivial or the victim’s fault, the kinds of myths I’d naïvely thought that the left would not tolerate.

I knew that we couldn’t dismiss all concerns about student discipline for sexual harassment simply because some of the most vocal critics had dubious methods or motives. But it was often difficult to distinguish between the good-faith actors and the bad. The result was that some Title IX advocates abandoned complexity, dismissing concerns about due process out of hand, or rejected reasonable reforms because they came from “the other side.” Some used low rates of false reporting to excuse mistreatment of the accused, or were cavalier about the stakes for a student facing suspension. In light of the anti-feminist backlash, that skepticism of procedural criticisms was understandable. But it was still wrong.

My life is full of survivors: friends, clients, colleagues. But I knew that I needed insight into what it felt like to be on the other side of an allegation. During the past few years, I’ve interviewed a number of people who have been accused of sexual harms. Those conversations were often difficult for me. I felt empathy talking directly to people—mostly men, though some women—whose lives had been disrupted by what nearly all of them insisted were false allegations. I was also wary of “himpathy,” and afraid of being manipulated by an abuser eager to style himself as a victim. On some occasions, I learned later that I had been lied to, and felt foolish. And yet I still feel very grateful for what I learned from those conversations. Through them, I gained a sense for how bad procedures made accused people feel powerless and small. And I learned, in some slight way, what it feels like to care about someone accused of sexual harassment. I felt moved that people with no real reason to trust me did so.

Those conversations confirmed that some of the most important work of creating fairer systems is listening. I do not mean that we have to read every speech by militant anti-feminists. I certainly do not believe that survivors must talk to accused rapists. But something that a man accused of sexual assault said has stuck with me. He supports #MeToo, with some caveats, and has no interest in the men’s-rights movement. But men’s-rights activists, he told me, are the only ones who want to hear his story.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the people I spoke with who had been accused of sexual harassment were angry—they had, in their telling, been wrongly accused, or treated unfairly in response to misconduct that they admitted to. But I was surprised to hear from a few who said that they were ultimately glad for the experience. One, a nurse, told me, “Having an individual go to H.R. with a detailed complaint was the best thing that happened to me. I coöperated, answered truthfully, and was fired. I took time, worked on things, and I’m a fundamentally healthier person than I was before, and I would not act in the ways I have in the past.” A man who had been accused of harassment as a student said that he found the process deeply painful, but also that it spurred him to rethink how he treated others.

Last year, I talked to a young man, “Sam,” who had been publicly accused of sexual assault by his ex-girlfriend. She had submitted the allegation to an anonymous Instagram account. It was one of many created in 2020 by college and high-school students to receive and then post the names of alleged harassers, some teachers but mostly classmates. At the time, I was writing about feminist vigilantism, from lists written in bathroom stalls at Brown University in the nineties to the “Shitty Media Men” list, a short-lived Google spreadsheet passed among New York writers in 2017. So I was interested in this very Gen Z version: natively digital, socially conscious, and, well, cute—full of bright colors and charming graphics.

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