When Brock Turner gained national notoriety in 2016 for one of the most high-profile sexual assaults in history, it more or less sealed the deal on how we imagine the stereotypical rapist: a rich, white male with a distinct air of frattiness.
An article published in The Atlantic on Monday suggests that this image is way off base. The piece — the third in a three-part series exploring the shift in the rules that govern sexual assault adjudication — revealed that the people accused of sexual assaults, especially those on college campuses, are disproportionately men of color.
The problem with this research is that the evidence is essentially anecdotal, though the anecdotes are compelling to say the least. The government has remained only minimally involved with the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, and the Office for Civil Rights — which regulates how schools respond to sexual assault — does not actually document racial information on the accused or the accuser in these cases.
However, The Atlantic article cited a handful of experts, including an OCR investigator and several Ivy League law professors who confirmed that in their own professional experiences, the phenomenon is very real, though rarely ever discussed. Just six percent of the undergraduate population is comprised of black males, but this group is vastly overrepresednted in reports of sexual assault on campuses.
What we can conclude from this information is that either rapists of color are more likely to be reported than their white counterparts, or that there is a growing trend of black men being falsely accused of rape. More likely than not, it is a combination of both — when women are assaulted by men of color, their inherent racial bias makes them more likely to report it than when the assailant is white — and when these women have sex with men of color that they later regret for any variety of reasons, social norms might make them more prone to lie about whether the sex was consensual. It is possible that female students are doing these things completely unconsciously, but they are doing them nonetheless.
This is why it is absolutely essential that sexual assault cases are dealt with by the criminal justice system, not college campuses or organizations therein. All too often, students accused of sexual assault are punished by their colleges and universities without ever facing a trial to determine their guilt. In the cases of athletes and other campus big-shots, this can mean a slap on the wrist where real punishment is due. In cases of men of color, it can sometimes mean the opposite.
Of course the criminal justice system has flaws of its own, with racial biases causing black men to be imprisoned in droves for non-violent offenses. Furthermore, even in an unflawed system, forcing women who were raped to undergo the trauma of a police investigation can be incredibly difficult for the victims. However, the criminal justice system is the most democratic process we have to achieve that kind of justice for the time being, and with any luck, systematic reform is imminent.
The truth of the matter is that rape is an awful, horrible thing — but so is being imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit, and we only have control over one of these things.
It is a swinging pendulum — where on one side, no one of any race is wrongly accused of rape, though women who are assaulted fail to get the justice they deserve — and on the other side, women are easily able to report and see justice for their rapists, though men are imprisoned for sexual assaults they didn’t commit, especially those of color.
For a long time now, the pendulum has been swung one way, where women get the short end of the stick, but it is becoming clear that we are beginning to creep back the other direction. It is such a complicated issue, and obviously we want the pendulum to be resting still, planted dead center in truth and fairness. Realistically, this is not possible.
In some ways, the pendulum has swung too far, with men of color far too often being accused of sexual assaults, many of which they didn’t commit — and in other more obvious ways, the pendulum has a long way yet to go before men face real consequences for the crimes they are committing.
Earlier in the series, The Atlantic wrote that many campuses’ attempts to answer this question are “unjust to men, infantilize women, and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against sexual violence.” The issue might never have a clear solution, but it is nevertheless a crucially important issue to address.