When I entered the military in 2005, I thought I was launching a lifelong career. That dream soon fell short when I arrived at my first duty station and faced horrific name-calling and physical abuse from my supervisor—which ultimately led to him violently attacking me, raping me and dislocating my jaw. I was sent for medical treatment and investigators were brought in.
The nine-month long investigation was a re-victimizing process in which instead of justice, I was completely failed as a survivor and service member. He was charged with assault and an inappropriate relationship; according to investigators, it wasn’t rape because he admitted to having sex with me and hitting me during it. He was bumped down in rank, given 30 days of restriction and had some of his pay taken away. With his watered-down conviction, he was able to continue his career, while I was forced out. Just a few short years ago, he was discharged for further abuse charges against more women.
My story is one of many shared by survivors of military sexual assault in the documentary The Invisible War, a documentary on military sexual assault. I recently watched another documentary, The Hunting Ground, about campus sexual assault, and kept thinking of the parallels between students fighting for justice and my own experience.
Kamilah Willingham’s story, in particular, stuck with me. While at Harvard Law, she and her friend reported a sexual assault by fellow student Brandon Winston. An investigation found that Winston had indeed assaulted them while they were incapacitated and unable to consent—but Winston later filed an appeal that allowed him back on campus, and no one bothered to tell his two victims until the decision was already final.
These actions knowingly violated a survivor’s civil rights, put more students in danger and even gave the survivor a chance for a surprise run-in with her attacker on campus—and violated multiple Title IX guidelines. Because of that, Harvard was eventually required to change its appeal process in a settlement with the Department of Education.
Systemic failures like these create more victims and empower perpetrators, which is exactly why the Obama administration took aim at chief complaints of campus survivors and implemented in-depth procedures to protect students under Title IX. In my opinion, the most valuable of their policy changes allowed investigators to use “preponderance of evidence,” meaning a decision based on “more than likely” certainty that the crime occurred. That allowed survivors more access to justice, and gave them more avenues to seek it out.
Miami University, in my home state of Ohio, is being sued right now for allowing a student with a history of sexual assault to remain on campus despite reports to administration. This case shows that relying on this standard of evidence leaves loopholes behind that perpetrators can slip through and reoffend. Nevertheless, many pushed against changes like these that gave survivors more support—and the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is now using her position to dismantle them.
DeVos has stated that Title IX’s use of “preponderance of evidence” ruins the lives of the falsely accused, a position she likely reached by meeting with alleged rapists. (Nevermind that so-called false rape reports are exceedingly rare, and that not having evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” is one of the many reasons predators like Larry Nassar get away with serial abuse.)
More recently, she proposed new regulations that would narrow the definition of sexual harassment, allow schools to ignore and dismiss some reports of assault, allow alleged rapists to cross-examine their victims during hearings and deny survivors their right to due process in order to prevent “stigma” against the people they accuse of assaulting them.
I watched in awe with my fist held high as Judge Rosemarie Aquilina fiercely sentenced Nassar, telling him: “As much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the sister survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you. Because, sir, you do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again.” It shouldn’t be extraordinary to see a judge so strongly stand on the side of survivors—or give space, support and compassion to the more than 150 who courageously testified about their abuse. And yet it is. All too often, survivors who do come forward—whether in the military, in Hollywood, or on a college campus—are re-traumatized by institutions that fail to hear them, protect them or seek out justice.
Betsy DeVos’ work to remove the progress made by the Obama administration to combat sexual assault on campus is unconscionable. Now is the time for us to mobilize our anger into action, stand for survivors and demand that institutions prioritize safety over reputation.
A public comment period just opened that give all of us the opportunity to tell the Trump administration we think of DeVos’ new guidelines. I’ll keep my comment short: Survivors deserve better than institutions that fail to believe them and support them.