A recent op-ed by A Man Who Graduated Over Twenty Years Ago, Daniel Barton, took obvious glee in excoriating sophomore Viviana Arcia and her support of the University’s decision to lower the standard of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of evidence” for sexual assault cases. I can just hear the derisive laughter that only someone with a law degree can produce as he was writing this, and it makes me sad, because the journey toward making a just society is a slow and messy process and goobers like Mr. Barton aren’t making it any easier.
His sentiment is understandable, entirely understandable. After all, “innocent until proven guilty” is one of the most treasured phrases in America, followed by “beyond a reasonable doubt.” “I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than let one innocent man be punished” and all that. All very inspiring stuff that nobody wants to speak out against. When it comes to the issue of sexual assault though, things get a little bit thornier.
In most sexual assault cases, there’s pretty much only one piece of evidence that proves guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt: bruises. Often times, rapists aren’t so courteous. So it’s her word against his, in a society that is none too afraid to call women lying bitches when they act in ways that are displeasing to powerful men, and in a society where stories about attempted rape are auto-tuned and gleefully offered up as the latest Internet meme. For sexual assault victims that aren’t blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and still had their hymen in tact, the system’s kind of set up against them. But none of that matters because “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY.” I’m pretty sure the people who developed that concept never had to worry about being the victim of sexual assault. Even less likely had they thought about the difficulties of trying to bring such a case to court. Most writings and theories about law were just a bunch of old rich white dudes arguing over property, in a time when women were still considered property. That’s right, get ready kids cuz I’m about to drop it, our entire modern Western conception of justice is a product of phallogocentrism.
I don’t say this to fundamentally reject the justice system, but to remind Mr. Barton and the angry commenters below Arcia’s op-ed of the problems with treating any doctrine made by humans as infallible. We all love the Constitution and think it’s the most just document on the planet, but for the majority of the 19th century, the Constitution was used as the top defense for preserving slavery. Most people knew slavery was bad and even more wanted to get rid of it, but it was protected by the Constitution. The nation’s hands were tied. It had to keep slavery legal. The Constitution can’t be wrong, it’s the Constitution. It took 4 years of civil war before our nation could finally recognize that the Constitution was in fact wrong and thus needed to be changed (I’m pretty sure there are some Tea Party artards out there who have no problem with how this chapter of American history played out).
It’s the same principle here with the Standard of Proof. Thankfully, academia is always open to self-analysis and changing broad structures, like the Office of Judicial Affairs, even if it’s unpopular to do so. I mean, yeah, it may sound like you’re a freedom-hating angry feminist to attack the idea of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but William Lloyd Garrison was branded a lunatic America-hating insurrectionist when he advocated for the abolition of slavery and for full racial equality. Ultimately, if the system’s broken, you got to change it.
The old Standard of Proof was not working, it needed to be changed. If the new Standard of Proof bothers you, there’s an easy solution: don’t sexually assault people. Then you won’t have to deal with it. And dudes, don’t act like I’m talking crazy here, 6% of college-aged men will admit to it. If you carry the world view that false sexual assault allegations are commonplace, then don’t do anything that would make a woman want to file one against you. They don’t just come out of the blue. Think about cutting down on sex with blackout strangers. Maybe reduce the number of sexist insults you use whenever you get in an argument with a romantic attachment. Call your friends out when they do the same. We all have the same goals here, and those kinds of conversations are a much more worthwhile use of the public discourse than endless squabbling about numbers and breathy J.D.-empowered condescension.