I hope you saw Robert VerBruggen’s piece in TAC yesterday, reviewing a new book about due process and sexual assault accusations on campus. Here is a story about a case at Michigan State University that reveals the power mere accusation has to ruin someone’s life. It starts like this:
The facts are largely undisputed: Two college students on summer break – he’s a sophomore; she, a freshman – make a date. It’s Memorial Day weekend, 2014, and their intentions are explicit. They meet and have sex – consensual, enthusiastic – when a passerby interrupts them.
A few hours later, still together, the male student attempts to resume the sexual encounter. He reaches under her shirt to touch her breast. He stops immediately when she asks him to. They agree about these facts.
Yet this “one-time, non-consensual touching,” as university documents summarize it, is the crux of a startling Michigan State University sexual misconduct case. It has generated a thick stack of legal documents, months of MSU administrator time, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills since the female student, known here as Melanie, formally complained on Sept. 25, 2015 – almost 16 months after the incident.
“Melanie,” the accuser is described as “well-schooled in feminist theory.” What happened is that she and “Nathan” agreed to have sex (he was a virgin), but were interrupted in flagrante delicto by a passerby who spotted them in the backseat of a car. They stopped. But it rattled Melanie:
She cried, and said she had a flashback to an earlier, abusive relationship in high school. Nathan tried to comfort her, but she described her tearful reaction as distressed, “extremely upset.” Later, they met a few of her friends for dinner in Plymouth and, after that, walked along the train tracks for an hour or longer, as he listened, while she talked. He recalls listening sympathetically. She remembers him dismissing how upset she was, and called his reaction “invalidating.”
Eventually, they sat down, his arm around her. A few hours earlier, they had been interrupted trying to have sex in a car. She says she told him she didn’t want to have sex again that night. This time, he reached beneath her shirt and bra, in what he later described as “a momentary touching of the breast,” and she characterized in a text the next day as “a groping.”
“I told you I don’t want to do this anymore,” she recalled saying to him. “And he did immediately stop.” At no time, she said, was he violent or threatening. At no time in their relationship was he ever physically violent or threatening. She dismisses the first official account of the incident — which stated that Nathan “pushed (Melanie) down and pulled up (her) shirt” offered by the Michigan State University investigator — as an exaggeration. “He never pushed me down,” Melanie said.
In his mind, the transgression, on an evening when they’d engaged in intercourse, was redeemed by his immediate response when she asked him to stop.
She was wounded: In her mind, she’d been sharing deep feelings about being abused by men, thinking he was being supportive. Instead, she experienced his touching as an act of betrayal.
According to Melanie, Nathan knew the campus rules of sexual conduct required him to seek voluntary, “unambiguous and willful” consent to touch her sexually, even if she had given sexual consent in the past, such as when they had sex hours earlier.
[Actually, that isn’t quite accurate. As it happens, this more explicit definition of consent wasn’t in effect on that evening along the railroad tracks. MSU did not adopt the policy until 2015, with similar provisions implemented at the University of Michigan and many other universities.]
Nathan’s reliance on a perceived cue rather than explicit assent was, to Melanie, an admission of sexual assault. (She later warned other students in her poetry class to beware of him, telling a circle of students that he had “sexually assaulted” her. At least one of them inferred that Nathan had raped her.)
So, understand: he touched the breast of a woman with whom he had just had consensual sex. She told him to stop. He stopped. Over a year later, she formally accused him of sexual assault. You’re never going to guess what triggered it:
More than two years after the incident, even Melanie’s gender has changed. When 16 months later she reported what happened on the train tracks, Melanie had been taking male hormones for 12 weeks; she had legally changed her name, adopting a male identity. Her voice dropped; she shaved her facial hair. The woman referred to in this account as Melanie now hopes to surgically alter her gender in the future, and lives and dresses as a man.
Back in 2014, she had also been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, and taken a semester-long medical leave to pursue therapy. While her mental fragility, hormone treatment and gender change appear to have played no role in the administration’s decision-making process, the transitioning did make a difference to Melanie.
Had taking male hormones changed Melanie’s outlook on the situation, the world?
“The world, definitely,” says the senior, who is majoring in art history and humanities at MSU. “I suppose transitioning was one of the driving elements for why I reported, because I felt uncomfortable using the men’s restrooms in my residential college, for fear that I would encounter him.”
That’s right: this hot mess decided that she wanted to live as a man, and worried that she might run into Nathan in the can. So she — along with Michigan State — ruined his life. Thanks feminist theory!
Read the whole thing — especially if you have a son who is in college or headed there. A friend read it and said that it made him want to send his son to college outside of the US. I know what he means.