MERCHANTS OF DOUBT

The Trump administration isn’t just curtailing women’s rights; it’s systematically eroding trust in women

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

Since its earliest days, it has been clear that the Trump administration was going to chip away at women’s rights and gender equality. Nine months in, here are some of the things it has done:

  • January: Reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which cuts aid funding to any international organization that so much as mentions to a pregnant woman that abortion is one of her options
  • April: Cut funding to the UN Population Fund, which provides reproductive health in more than 150 countries
  • July: Promoted the idea (paywall) that most reports of college sexual assault are false
  • August: Scrapped a rule that would have made pay disparities more visible by requiring many US companies to report on pay rates by race and gender
  • August: Removed a key report on college sexual assault—which found, among other things, that very few assault reports are false—from the White House website.
  • September: Issued new guidance on how colleges should investigate sexual assault, requiring a higher burden of proof
  • October: Curtailed the right to birth control enshrined in Obamacare

But these moves don’t only block the progress of gender equality. They have a sinister side-effect: undermining the word of women, making them seem undeserving of trust, thus weakening their voices and their complaints.

It is hard not to see this as a deliberate intention. The president is a noted misogynist who has nominated men to government jobs at a higher rate than any of the last three presidents. His administration doesn’t trust women, and doesn’t want its citizens to trust them either.

Perhaps the clearest example is its recent change to the guidelines on how colleges should investigate sexual assault, which is considered a violation of Title IX, the piece of law that prohibits discrimination on campuses.

The Barack Obama administration issued new Title IX guidelines to help colleges deal with accusations of assault more quickly (giving a deadline for investigating assault reports) and made the victim’s word alone enough to begin an investigation (since in most cases, assault or rape accusations are down to the victim’s word against the perpetrator’s).

Education secretary Betsy DeVos recently amended these guidelines. After saying in a speech that people accused of sexual assault needed more protecting from the assumption of guilt, she introduced changes such as letting schools allow both victim and perpetrator to appeal a decision (previously, only victims could appeal), getting rid of the deadline for investigations, and saying that under Title IX “schools must address sexual misconduct that is severe, persistent or pervasive”—implying that not all sexual misconduct should be addressed.

But the administration isn’t just changing the policies on investigating sexual assault—it’s also attacking the facts that justified those policies.

The Obama guidelines were based on the understanding that the vast majority of accusations of rape on campus are legitimate. This was the finding of a 2014 White House report on sexual assault, which said that only 2% to 10% of rape reports are false (pdf, p. 16). It also found that 20% of female students suffer sexual assault (p. 1), but only 12% of assaults are reported, and that young men who admit to rape or attempted rape have done it an average of six times (p.14).

The report was published on the White House website during the Obama administration. It remained there until the Trump administration quietly removed it at the end of August, though it’s still on the archived Obama White House site.

Meanwhile, the administration has been promoting another set of data through Candice Jackson, the head of civil rights at the Education Department. Without providing evidence, she claimed (paywall) that 90% of assault 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 said that in most cases the men aren’t accused of forcing themselves on women against their will—implying that an assault isn’t really an assault unless the woman fights back. (In reality, a woman may be too afraid, or indeed drunk, to resist or say no, but that doesn’t mean she consents.)

“I think this sends a very strong message,” says Mellissa Withers, a global health professor at the University of Southern California whose work focuses on sexual assault and gender-based violence. “Of course, we don’t want anyone who is innocent to be accused,” she says, but false accusations are so rare that the new guidelines seem like a deliberate attempt to promote suspicions that women who report an assault may be lying. This runs contrary to decades of scientific literature on rape reporting.

This is an approach that perpetrates a fundamental lack of trust in women—something that in turn is fertile ground for limiting their rights. The same mindset runs through the proposed ban on abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy, introduced by a conservative Republican member of the House of Representatives, which passed a House vote on Oct. 3.

The proposal, which focuses on saving the lives of future healthy babies from their murderous mothers, seems to believe women capriciously and frequently resort to late-term abortions. In reality, only 1.3% of abortions happen after the 20th week, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Typically they’re because of certain health problems with the fetus that don’t become apparent until later in pregnancy, such as some genetic conditions. The justification for the measure—that fetuses as young as 20 weeks can supposedly feel pain—is also scientifically flimsy.

Trusting women’s judgement would mean believing that they make sensible decisions, even when that decision is to end a pregnancy late or report an abuse with no evidence other than what they themselves experienced. But if their credibility is systematically undermined, it’s easier to diminish their worth. That ultimately makes it easier to justify paying them less, not choosing them for political office, ignoring their voices, and taking away their rights over their bodies.

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