#MeToo Tips For College Bound Families

Stanford University. Image: Rao Advisors

By Rajkamal Rao  

Anything that is disruptive and destructive is bound to lose steam after a while - whether it be a hurricane or a human-inspired movement.  We have had numerous campaigns come and go including Black Lives Matter, protests to support refugees in Europe and a movement against income inequality (remember Wall Street’s Top 1% riots?).  Each of these stayed on in the public sphere for some time and slowly, fluttered out.

But #MeToo has been a remarkable exception and will likely stay on as a powerful movement for gender equity for years to come. This is because, at its core, it indirectly impacts every one of us, not just for our actions today, but as it played out in the confirmation battle of now Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for alleged actions 35 years ago as a high school student.

#MeToo has empowered women to come forward knowing that there will be consequences for the men involved. While doing so will not erase unfortunate instances in the past, it has the advantage of acting as a deterrent against future abusive action by men. For anyone who believes in equity and justice, #MeToo as a force has no parallel because it can help prevent gender abuse whereas the best laws to date address grievances after the fact.

Why #MeToo Is Different

#MeToo shines a spotlight on the way powerful male colleagues, often in roles of authority, have abused their power to advance the careers of those women who submitted to the men’s sexual fantasies and limit the careers of those who refused.  It illustrates sexual harassment of the highest degree, exemplified by a powerful line in Michael Crichton’s 1990’s movie Disclosure:  “Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power.” Although, in this movie, the perpetrator was female and the victim was male.

#MeToo is different from all other movements to date because once uncovered, action occurs at lightning speed.  The consequences are usually terminal because decades-long careers, mostly of men, are lost overnight for transgressions which occurred decades ago under social environments which permitted, even encouraged, gender bias.


But there are risks of such a shoot-from-the-hip approach. For one thing, there is no due process.  Judgment is passed in the court of public opinion at breakneck speed as tweets and posts go viral.  There are no courts of law where the accused is given a chance to defend himself.  In fact, the accused is often never heard from again.  The circumstances and evidence are also not always fully understood.

While most stories of the women are credible, there is always the suspicion that some stories may not be true and some women may, yes may, be deliberately misstating what occurred (as in Disclosure) or may have a different view of what happened a long time ago.

#MeToo in college

Traditional college sexual assault cases cannot be technically classified as #MeToo because, by definition, they don't involve workplace sexual harassment.  And long before #MeToo, there has been due attention given to what happens in college, especially in elite schools.

A few years ago, an explosive story in Rolling Stone magazine described how a woman was gang-raped by men at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.  Later investigations showed that the woman had made up the whole story.   Rolling Stone had to pay damages because it lost a defamation suit when a professor at UVA sued the magazine.

And there's confusion about what constitutes assault.  The hook-up culture in today's colleges - as described by Lisa Wade in her book - is shocking, pervasive and extensive.  Wade says that alcohol acts as a catalyst and hundreds of students reported being completely inebriated before casual sexual encounters.  Most people did not even remember what occurred because parties were loud and the lighting was dark.  In such a situation, the line between consensual action and assault becomes rather thin. The most dramatic case was one at Yale, where a male student was acquitted of wrongdoing by a criminal court of law in March 2018, but the public outcry was so intense that Yale expelled the student anyway in Jan 2019.

These things happen in part because of the relative immaturity and young age of college students. They could be in what they think are consensual relationships, and when these relationships turn sour, the girl could claim later that she was assaulted during the weeks leading to the breakup.  This is the most controversial situation because liberties taken by partners when things are going well are immediately held to a different, higher standard by one partner, often without adequate warning.

This is what happened at Columbia University a few years ago when a female student, Emma Sulkowicz, claimed that her ex-boyfriend assaulted her.  She became famous for dragging a mattress all over campus for years, including to her graduation ceremony.  For her, the mattress represented the painful burden rape victims carry throughout daily life.  But Columbia later settled with the male student after he had charged Columbia of enabling a harassment campaign by a fellow student who had accused him of rape.  Prior internal investigations by Columbia had cleared him of wrongdoing. Under the #MeToo lens of public scrutiny, Columbia may not have settled with the male student.

Tips For College Bound Families

Both boys and girls should be aware of their rights and duties when they first arrive on the college campus.  They are away from home for the first time and exploring new friends in an unsupervised setting is the essence of the college experience.  But this freedom also comes with enormous responsibility because a single act, however innocent or misconstrued at the time, can spell disaster.

Boy or girl, we advise you to avoid parties which involve alcohol.  Not only is possessing or drinking alcohol illegal in most states until you're 21 years old, but alcohol has also proven itself to be the cause in most things bad - traffic accidents, negative health effects from binge drinking and of course, assault.  

The best tip we could provide all boys is to treat all girls the same way they would treat their sisters or mothers at home. And of course, to avoid any encounter which could become intimate and wait to have a serious relationship until after graduation when they are no longer in a campus setting.

For sure, these are moral questions and each person has to decide the course of action here.  But be aware that the issue is also legal because the definition of what constitutes consent is murky.  There are now smartphone apps such as We-Consent and Legal Fling which can record consent that could protect you later.

Under the Obama administration, the burden of proof for reporting campus sexual assaults was dramatically lowered.  As the New York Times reported, these policies led the government to investigate many universities and colleges over their handling of sexual assault cases under the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination by any school that receives federal funding.

The Trump administration has slowly begun to raise the burden of proof making it harder for victims to press assault cases.  Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, is reported to have said that “there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process,” referring to students accused of assault.

Update from the Wall Street Journal, 05/06/2020:

The Department of Education has revised its rule for due process for sexual-assault accusations on campus. The new rule says college tribunals must give the accuser and accused the chance to present and challenge evidence and to cross-examine witnesses. Both will receive the same written notice about allegations, and both will enjoy the same right to appeal. The department issued the new rules after considering more than 124,000 public comments.

One of the hallmarks of the Biden administration has been to undo everything the Trump administration did and reverse policies, at a minimum, to the standards that existed during the Obama years, or, make the policies even more progressive. As expected, the Education Department announced next steps in overhauling Title IX campus sexual assault rules. But the overhaul will likely take time and is subject to court challenges from organizations that lobbied for the changes implemented during the Trump administration. For now, the Trump administration rules will stand.

Our takeaway

This is a topic which parents must confront and discuss with their college-bound teenagers. The problem is compounded because teenagers tend to over-estimate their abilities and parents are already anxious about sending their wards so far away from home. Worse, there are no easy answers and it is often embarrassing to have such conversations.

But the price of avoiding difficult conversations can be devastating to young minds and hearts. It is our hope that this blog post can function as a conversation-starter. If you don't like what's in the post, please go ahead and blame us - we don't mind playing the role of a bad cop!

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors and involves a fee.  Please  contact us for more information.

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