Open letter stirs controversy for blasting ‘believe the victim’ approach to campus sex assaults

The letter, signed by nearly 140 people, was just the latest wrinkle in a growing debate about how colleges and universities investigate campus sexual assault allegations.

Listen 2:09
College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About a dozen attorneys and professors in and near Philadelphia have signed an open letter calling “believe the victim” approaches to sexual assault investigations “junk science” that risks wrongful convictions.

The letter, spearheaded by the Maryland-based group Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, or SAVE, claims that the victim-centered practices that now guide campus rape investigations hearken back to history’s hasty responses to public health crises that presumed the accused’s guilt.

“This trend is disturbingly reminiscent of the 1980s and ‘90s satanic daycare child abuse ‘witch hunt’ during which investigators were instructed to ‘believe the children’ without scrutiny,” the letter states.

The letter, signed by nearly 140 people from across the country, was just the latest wrinkle in a growing debate about how colleges and universities investigate campus sexual assault allegations.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Last fall, the Department of Education dumped Obama-era guidelines that lowered the standard of proof for sexual misconduct under the federal Title IX law, a move that critics complained will dissuade victims from reporting campus sexual assaults that are already greatly underreported.

Local folks who signed the SAVE letter say a knee-jerk believe-the-victim approach to sexual misconduct cases can imperil the accused’s constitutional due process rights.

“They start almost with this very strong presumption of guilt, and that’s antithetical to how our system ought to work,” said David Rudovsky, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney and senior fellow at Penn Law.

Philadelphia attorney Patricia M. Hamill has represented about 100 students who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

“Sexual assault is absolutely a very important issue, and people who are victims of sexual assault deserve to be heard and deserve to get the help they need,” Hamill said. “However, I come at this as an attorney who’s looking for fairness in the process for everybody concerned, and that includes the complainant and the accused student. If at the end of the day somebody’s going to be found responsible, they should have been given a fair hearing. That also lends integrity to the system, if there’s a sense that there is fairness for all participants.”

Other local signers include University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors, and professors from Rutgers and Penn State universities, the University of Delaware, and Moravian and Lafayette colleges.

The letter singled out a trauma-informed approach to sexual assault investigations as especially objectionable. Supporters of that approach say trauma can so boggle a victim’s mind that they lose memories, give inconsistent accounts, or behave in unexpected ways (such as interacting with their attacker afterward). But the letter picked apart the credibility of such an approach, saying it “attempts to impute a veneer of scientific responsibility to the broader ‘believe the victim’ movement.”

The missive sparked backlash from critics who derided it as a “men’s rights letter.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that a right-wing, misogynistic hate group — classified as that by the Southern Poverty Law Center — would engage on the issues of sexual violence,” said Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project. “They most likely are doing this to engage more white men in their right-wing movement. What shocks me is that law professors and other lawyers would align themselves with a group that has been classified like this. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree on how to improve the adjudication of rape allegations in both civil and criminal proceedings, but aligning themselves with a group like that is very troubling.”

Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book “The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement,” agreed: “The facts are that, despite statistics finding that victims are telling the truth more than 90 percent of the time, rapists are rarely held accountable, on college campuses or elsewhere. When only 3 percent of rapists will ever see a day in jail, and only 2 percent of campus rapists are expelled, the system is heavily stacked in favor of predators. The idea that survivors somehow have an advantage in campus or law enforcement proceedings is patently absurd, given these statistics.”

Victim-centered investigative practices are “a rebuttal to the historic practice of immediately disbelieving victims,” Tracy added. “We have said for years that rape victims have been profiled as liars. So this is a corrective measure, an attempt to balance and correct and to perceive reports of sexual violence on the same grounds as other types of allegations. When someone reports a theft, they (investigators) don’t automatically disbelieve them.”

On criticism of the trauma-informed approach, one expert said decades worth of research — on survivors of the Holocaust, 9/11, domestic violence and sexual assault, World War II combat veterans and prisoners of war, and traumatized Vietnam-era soldiers and civilians, among others — forged that practice.

“The authors of this letter are completely discounting over 30 years of solid research on virtually every aspect of trauma, including what happens to the body and brain, including the fundamental memory problems that characterize many presentations of post-traumatic stress,” said Sandra Bloom, a Drexel University associate professor of health management and policy and past-president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

SAVE has taken conservative stands on other gender issues, even though its deputy executive director Christopher Perry has described his group as nonpartisan. For example, SAVE has called the #MeToo movement “a modern-day vigilante movement” (and suggested an alternate #NotMe hashtag), declared false allegations of domestic violence “a major problem in our society,” blamed women for initiating partner violence, and claimed as many as 90 percent of reported rapes are unfounded or false.

The SPLC flagged SAVE for misogyny in 2012, saying the group is part of an online “manosphere … dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general.”

Perry did not respond to requests for comment.

Rudovsky wasn’t aware that SAVE sponsored the letter he signed, saying it came to him through a network of attorneys. Hamill said she knew SAVE sponsored it, but had “no problem in signing the letter, because I believed in its content.”

But both said they see the issue as one of fundamental fairness, rather than gender.

“I’m a mom, I have have two sons, I have a college-age daughter, I’m a feminist,” Hamill said. “So in terms of anyone calling this a ‘men’s rights’ letter, it’s a rights-oriented letter for sure, for anybody who’s accused of sexual misconduct in a college setting.”

Rudovsky agreed: “As much as we’ve had a huge problem in this country with sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment, it’s both very important that people feel free to report it and we try to put an end to that kind of misconduct — but on individual cases that become a university process where a student can be expelled, or an employee can be dismissed from work, or whatever it might be, that we follow fair and reliable procedures in making a final assessment.”

The long-simmering due-process debate has heated up in recent years, as conversations about campus rape and the #MeToo movement have taken center stage.

SAVE is far from the only group fighting for more fairness in campus disciplinary investigations.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philly-based watchdog group advocating for civil rights and free speech in academia, released a report last fall ranking the nation’s top 53 universities on how well they ensure students receive due process when facing discipline. The foundation, which Kors co-founded in 1999, found that nearly three-quarters of the schools do not presume accused students’ innocence at an investigation’s outset.


CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story suggested that Hamill did not know that SAVE sponsored the letter she signed.

Victim Centered Practices Open Letter FINAL Docx (Text)

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal