Words for the accused in sexual assault cases
You’ve been accused of sexually assaulting someone on campus. Immediately you’re angry because you know that you have never assaulted anyone. You remember the person you’re accused of assaulting and you can’t believe that she would claim that it was sexual assault. You had a great time together at that party, and hooked up after hanging out for a couple of hours. You even gave her a ride home and talked about hanging out later in the week, but she blew you off after you texted her so you figured she wasn’t interested. This is going to ruin your life! How could she do that?
Almost every student I have worked with who was accused of sexual assault told some version of the above story when I informed him he was being accused of sexual misconduct, although they weren’t always that polite. I understand. If you’ve been accused of sexually assaulting someone, you immediately realize that sexual assault is just a pretty term for rape, and being accused of being a rapist makes you mad. Even more confusing is that the accusation can come months or even years after the event, and you might not even remember the details well. You may have a new girlfriend. You may have mutual friends. You may even live on the same floor or have classes together. So what do you do?
This blog is for those people accused of some form of sexual misconduct. As with the other entries I’m making several assumptions:
- You do not think you did it. This doesn’t mean that the accuser is “making it up,” but rather that you truly think that there is some sort of horrible misunderstanding.
- You know for a fact that the judicial case is the only action that’s going to be taken. Do not forget-sexual assault is a crime and there are criminal and civil penalties if you are found guilty in the courts. MOST cases of college sexual assault will not go to court, but it is a possibility. I will probably repeat this, but it is probably worth hiring a lawyer to make sure you are protected in case it goes to court. This is true even if you retain us because we will ONLY be advising you as it relates to the judicial hearing, and that does not mean that we will be trying to protect your legal situation.
- You do not have a judicial history for this (i.e. you have never been accused before.)
- The complainant may be from your school or from another school, and regardless the process will remain the same.
- I’m assuming the gender norms here so the accused will be male and the accuser female. I am well aware that this is not always the case, but it is most frequently the case when a case comes forward.
So without further ado, here are some suggestions for preparing for a hearing as a respondent (i.e. accused person) at your school.
- Talk to a lawyer. I almost never think that it is a good idea to use an attorney for a judicial case, but in these situations participating in the hearing may expose you civilly or criminally. A good legal strategy may be completely different than a good judicial strategy. That doesn’t mean that you should treat the judicial case like a law suit, but you (or us if you are using us) should work with an attorney to make certain you are not accidentally hurting yourself legally.
- Cooperate without admitting anything. Your school will likely take some interim steps to “protect” the accused that may seem unfair. At a minimum you should be told to have no contact with her, but you may be forced to change classes or move to a different residence. While this may seem (and indeed be) unfair, the school must assume that there is a risk to the accuser and the consequence of not acting is much worse. This does not mean that you have to like it, but saying “I don’t think this is necessary, but I understand” is a good response. The exception to this is if you are being moved out of a class that you must take that semester in order to graduate on time. In that case work with your academic advisor and the Dean’s office to see what options are available.
- Never ever try to contact or have someone contact the accuser. This is very similar to #2, but it is SO important that it should stand-alone. Even if you think that the accuser is completely full of it, any contact can be seen as intimidation and moves you from “innocent until found responsible” to a threat. To give you an idea of what that means, when I was chief judicial officer I would tell people to “have no contact of any kind, either directly or indirectly.” If someone were to violate that command I would not only slap a “harassment” charge on them, but I would move to have them suspended until the hearing to protect the accuser.
- You cannot mediate this issue. Some schools may still think that they can arrange a mediation in these cases, but they are wrong. Ask the University of Washington-sexual assault (and some other issues) can NEVER be mediated, and if it is you (and the school) should expect a lawsuit.
- Understand what aspects of the accusation make it sexual assault. Accused students frequently focus on what happened physically when the craft their defense. While that may be an important part of the response, it is usually not the crux. If you are being accused of sexual assault and what you actually did together is not disputed, then the issue is consent. Consent is tricky and is defined differently at many schools, but essentially it is that a woman must give consent to any sexual act. This means that she cannot be intoxicated (to some level), under the influence of drugs, underage, or have any other sort of “diminished capacity” which made what seemed like consent insufficient. In other word, if she was wasted, she did not consent even if she said she did. (Side note: ALMOST no cases happen where a woman says “yes, I want to have sex” and then claims diminished capacity where the guy did not have a strong role in getting her intoxicated (e.g. drugging her or making her drinks stronger than expected.)) Consent is an affirmative act by someone so simply “not saying no” is not consenting.
- Unless you have clear evidence that the accusations are knowingly false, never attack the accuser. Nothing will turn a committee against you like reading or hearing about how you think she is only accusing you because she’s “embarrassed” or “had a boyfriend.” There are ways to examine her motives, but basing your response on her motivations is ALWAYS a bad idea.
- Think about your witnesses carefully. An accusation of sexual assault means that on a particular night you were accused of doing something. It does not mean that you are a serial rapist, that you hate women, that you don’t believe in Jesus, or anything other than that. People often try to bring in character witnesses to show that they did not do something because they are such “good people.” It is fine if you have one of those to support your response, but if that is your only defense you are in trouble. If the accusation includes statements like “he does this all the time” or “everyone knows he does this” then it makes sense to have more of those type of counter-witnesses, but that’s usually not the issue. Also, ask your judicial officer whether there is a difference to the board between live and written witness statements. If written statements are considered like testimony try to use them for any “redundant” claims and only have your strongest witnesses live. A strong witness is someone who either saw the events or has direct knowledge about your thoughts/feelings after the event.
- Think about your questions for the complainant and work on phrasing them so that they are not aggressive. You are being accused of committing an act of controlling and aggressive violence. You can tell the board you are not that person, but the best way to convince them is to show them through your actions and attitude during this process.
- Seek support! This is a VERY stressful time and it will affect you. Take advantage of your school’s academic and psychological support options. I used to tell people that if they spoke with a psychologist they can tell that person anything they wanted and be as angry as they wanted without worrying that it would get back to me or be part of this hearing. You will need to process and you will need to vent, so choose someone you know is legally obligated to keep it to themselves.
- If you feel that this process is starting to seem like it may lead to any other sort of process, go to #1. The stakes are too high to take this lightly.
I know that many of these suggestions are very general. That is because these cases, even more than others, are very different. There is not really a good “general strategy” to dealing with these accusations so I STRONGLY recommend that you get help when working on these. You don’t have to use us, but we are the only company dedicated solely to a non-legal approach to the disciplinary process.
NEXT: General ways to avoid putting yourself in these situations.