Now that we’ve got the obvious joke out of the way – yes, here all week, I suggest you try the veal – it’s possible to take seriously this finding that half of female students have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching. There being a serious and important point to take from this which is that no, we don’t degrade civil liberties for anyone, not even in the sex wars.
There is the obvious point that we’re going through a change in what is defined as sexual touching of course. We used to have a quite clear social division between what was overenthusiastic flirting and what was that sexual assault. Sure, it’s entirely possible that the line was drawn in the wrong place but it was there and generally understood. Today’s line is rather further over to this side over here – not objectively wrong but it is, we’ll all agree, rather different from what it was. It’s just that we’ve not all signed on to understanding where that new line is.
OK, that’s just what happens in times of social change. We’ll get there no doubt, just as we have in all the other changes in social and sexual mores that have happened over the millennia. However, there are some things that should be written in stone and there’s a suggestion that one of those shouldn’t be:
Half of young women at university have been the victim of unwanted sexual touching, the largest poll of its kind has found. A survey of 5,649 British undergraduates found that only a quarter of those who were raped went on to report it. 16 per cent of female students said they have been pressured into a sexual act, compared to six year cent of their male peers. The poll, conducted by the sexual health charity Brook, asked students a series of questions about how much sexual harassment they have been exposed to. The majority of students said they had been subjected unwanted sexual advances, ranging from cat-calling to being forced into having sex. However, only eight per cent of students who were sexually harassed went on to report it.
Some portion of all that is going to be about those changed standards of what constitutes harassment. But it’s this which is important:
Students complained that the current system “actively discourages” survivors and victims of sexual assault from coming forward, while implying that perpetrators are unlikely to face consequences from the university. Currently the university relies on the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, for all disciplinary cases other than ones relating to fitness to study. But students have called for decisions to be based instead on the civil standard of proof, the balance of probabilities. In response, the university’s discipline review committee proposed a change to the standard of proof required for misconduct claims.
No, this is to go down the appalling rabbit hole that the American universities have.
Let us agree that sexual harassment is a significant crime. One for which the perpetrator should indeed be significantly punished so as to wipe the stain from our civilisation. Good. Now, in order to punish significantly we’ve got to be sure that the crime was committed, that it was committed by the accused.
Note that the more serious we think the crime, the more we wish to punish it, the more sure we’ve got to be about both of those. Which means that in order to take sexual harassment seriously we’ve got to be applying that serious standard of proof, the criminal one. To degrade our requirement to that for civil cases is to fail to take the matter seriously that is.
Odd but true – the worse we think the crime of sexual harassment is the more difficult it has to be to prove it.