Republicans and campus rape: The Department of Education's bizarre Christian-right tilt is no accident

Betsy DeVos and other Christian conservatives want to police women's behavior — and don't really care what men do

By Amanda Marcotte

Published July 14, 2017 4:58AM (EDT)

Betsy DeVos   (AP/Alex Brandon)
Betsy DeVos (AP/Alex Brandon)

After the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape was released last October, featuring then-candidate Donald Trump bragging about how he can grab and kiss women without their consent because "when you’re a star, they let you do it," a number of political watchers believed that might be the end of the Christian right's support for Trump. Surely, many hoped, the nature of what he described on tape, which appears to meet the definition of sexual assault, would offend the self-appointed guardians of America's sexual morality.

That hope didn't come to pass. Around 80 percent of white evangelical voters cast their ballots for Trump -- a higher percentage than George W. Bush ever got.

Recent actions by the Department of Education, which leans heavily towards the Christian right under Secretary Betsy DeVos, suggest part of the reason why. When it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campus, the inclination of DeVos and her Bible-hugging staff members is to minimize, excuse and blame the victims. It's a reminder that the Christian right's emphasis on policing sexuality is almost entirely about punishing and controlling women and LGBT people. Holding men accountable for abusive behavior comes second, if at all, to punishing women for being sexual or living independent lives.

Last week, it was reported that the DOE reached out to a series of "men's rights activist" or MRA groups that work primarily on making it more difficult for women to seek justice for domestic violence and rape. Such groups actively promote the idea that most such accusations come from women who lie about rape to conceal their supposedly slutty behavior or lie about domestic violence to get an advantage in divorce proceedings. MRA groups also argue, in cases where they can't deny the violence happened, that the victim had it coming.

The DOE also invited feminist groups to the meeting, but swiftly disinvited the anti-rape group Know Your IX after its founders argued against the inclusion of hate groups in a meeting about women's human rights.

When the New York Times reached out to Candice Jackson, a Trump appointee who heads the civil rights division at the DOE, she said that "90 percent" of campus rape accusations "fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk, we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"

Jackson also denied that the the accused perpetrators "overrode the will of a young woman," reinforcing the myth that rape can only occur if the assailant uses physical violence to subdue the victim.

Jackson later apologized for being "flippant" but did not retract her claim that most accusers in campus rape cases are making false or distorted allegations.

This isn't the first time that Jackson has suggested that women speaking out about sexual abuse are all liars. She also said that about Trump's accusers, despite the fact that they largely describe assaults that match his own taped admission that he likes to "grab them by the pussy."

Jackson, who has also worked as a Christian country musician, isn't an anomaly in the Christian right. She is expressing an attitude that is shot throughout conservative Christianity: A woman's path in life is to be a virgina and avatar of modesty until she gets married, after which her life should be devoted to motherhood and domestic servitude. Anyone who strays from that path, in this worldview, is a deviant who deserves whatever terrible things happen to her.

As Jackson said in an article for Federalist in 2013, women aren't "meant or intended or designed to achieve both excellence and nurturing (e.g., career and family)", because they are "limited" people.

A lot of right-wing politicians have learned to speak elliptically about these beliefs, but the truth slips out on occasion. It most famously did so in 2012, when Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin lost an election after claiming that victims of "legitimate rape" cannot get pregnant.

Most of the attention paid to that comment focused on the scientific ignorance behind it. What was perhaps more important was the peek it offered into attitudes about rape that are widespread on the religious right. Akin's unsubtle implication was that most pregnant rape victims are lying to conceal their sinful decision to have sex with men they weren't married to.

In fact, Akin's comment got at the heart of what really angers Christian conservatives about abortion, which is that they see it as a "get out of jail free" card for shameless sluts. That same mentality kicks into gear when they're appraising women who are raped in the course of other "sinful" behavior, such as drinking alcohol or seeking consensual sexual encounters.

In a similar vein, it was recently revealed during discovery in a lawsuit by 10 alleged rape victims against Baylor University, a conservative Baptist institution, that Neal Jones, the school's regent in 2009, described women who consume alcohol at parties as "perverted little tarts" and “the vilest and most despicable of girls,” He released a statement apologizing for being "hyperbolic and too harsh," but did not retract the larger judgment about the morality of the young women in question.

This helps explains Jackson's interpretation of "90 percent" of rape claims. It's true that most rapes happen when the victim is doing things the religious right deems improper for women, such as drinking or entertaining the possibility of consensual sex. This should not exonerate the attacker in any way -- but for many people, especially Christian conservatives, it's hard to get past the sense that a woman who makes those choices has it coming.

With the religious right, many questions of social policy come back to making sure women face "consequences" for behavior they deem sinful. There is no apparent limit, for the movement, on how severe those consequences should be. Religious conservatives, for instance, heavily campaigned against the HPV vaccine when it came out, even though it prevents cancer, because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection. Death is seen as preferable to allowing women to escape the consequences of their supposed sins. Now, of course, the Christian right is trying to defund Planned Parenthood and waging war on insurance coverage of contraception. They are focused like lasers on making sure women who choose to have sex suffer for it.

So the DOE's actions aren't surprising. The Christian right view is that the central problem in our society is that girls can't behave themselves. If they just stayed home and prayed or knitted, instead of going out drinking and cavorting with boys, these terrible things wouldn't happen. Taking actions to make partying and dating safer for women by holding rapists accountable is counterproductive to the larger, godly goal of controlling and punishing women's sinful conduct.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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