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How investigators turn rape cases into “he said/she said,” in one paragraph

A student is suing Virginia Wesleyan College for negligence after she was sexually assaulted on campus. The school has come under serious criticism this week for asking her to list her entire sexual history. But further investigation suggests that the college has mishandled the case from the beginning.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, writing at Reason, analyzes the records of the whole case in depth — and reveals that when college officials were "investigating" Doe's allegation, they basically did no investigation at all. This paragraph is particularly damning:

The school officials also spend a good deal of time trying to reconcile Doe and Kane's diverging timelines: Was she there for 45 minutes or 5 hours? But rather than consult campus security cameras, which must exist somewhere around the dormitories; interviewing Doe's friends (whom she was with right before the incident) and roommate (whom she saw right after); or questioning security officers who may remember something, the school simply tries to talk Doe and Kane through their conflicting accounts. Unsurprisingly, no conclusion is reached.

It's almost never just "he said/she said"

There's a perception out there that cases of "gray rape" — where the victim is unable to consent because she's intoxicated, she initially consents and then changes her mind, or she is just afraid to say no — can only ever be adjudicated by deciding whether to trust the accuser or the accused: a "he said/she said" situation. Often, that belief is shared by the people who are supposed to be investigating the cases — both college administrators and many actual police.

But the "he said/she said" assumption is rarely, if ever, true, as shown by a study about rape investigations in Los Angeles by researchers from Arizona State University and California State University. "Most of the time," one detective told the researchers, "there is something else that can be done" other than talking to victims and suspects: looking at phone records and text messages, evidence from social networking websites, and interviews with potential witnesses. "If I don't go looking for evidence," another said, "I'll never find it."

When I spoke to Janine Zweig of the Urban Institute about this several months ago, she quoted a prosecutor who put it to her more bluntly: "There's always corroborating evidence. You just need to find it."

Taking sexual assault seriously means not just treating it as an argument

Whether an investigator thinks it's possible to find out the truth of what happened by looking at other evidence obviously shapes how much work he puts into the investigation. But it also shapes how he thinks about the case. In the Los Angeles study, detectives who understood that there's more to an investigation than he said/she said were more likely to take the accusation seriously, just like police officers would with a victim reporting any other crime. Detectives who treated gray rapes as he said/she said, on the other hand, were more likely to dismiss the accusation as unprovable and assume that the incident was probably consensual.

In this case, the investigators at Virginia Wesleyan College ended up ruling in favor of the accuser because they never got beyond the he said/she said dispute. But now that they're being sued, they appear to regret that decision.

There's a reasonable debate over how colleges should fulfill their legal requirement to investigate and punish assault, or even whether that legal requirement ought to exist. But any institution investigating an assault is supposed to do some actual investigating. No matter how the case is resolved, assuming that a sexual assault case is always just one person's word against another's is disrespectful to both the victim and the accused — and fails to take sexual assault seriously.