The XX Factor

Bernie Sanders Means Well, But He’s Out of Step With Young Feminists on One Crucial Issue

Bernie Sanders on December 23 in Chicago.

Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has shown himself this week to be somewhat out of step with an important progressive constituency: young feminists. On Monday night, at the Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum hosted by Fusion, he said:

Rape and assault is rape or assault whether it takes place on a campus or on a dark street. And if a student rapes a fellow student, that has got to be understood to be a very serious crime. It has got to get outside of the school and have a police investigation. And that has got to take place.

Too many schools now are saying, well, this is a student issue, let’s deal with it. I disagree with that. It is a crime, and it has to be treated as a serious crime. And you are seeing now the real horror of many women who have been assaulted or raped sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them. Rape is a very, very serious crime. It has to be prosecuted, and it has to be dealt with.

As Sanders’ critics have acknowledged, he was clearly trying to telegraph the gravity of sexual violence and his commitment to advancing women’s cause. But given the many well-documented problems with the approach he’s advocating, Sanders’ comments show instead that he hasn’t given the issue of rape on campus much thought.

As Libby Nelson writes at Vox, “colleges aren’t investigating sexual assaults in order to sweep them under the rug. They’re required to do so by Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal educational opportunity to men and women”—and which treats gendered discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault as violations of that civil right to an equitable environment.

Since 2011, the Obama administration has been engaged in a historic push to make schools own this responsibility, a goal that the government recognizes as essential for rape survivors. The Department of Education has directed universities to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard when evaluating cases of sexual assault, as opposed to the criminal justice system’s standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Although colleges are still debating the best way to interpret “preponderance of evidence” so that it provides justice for both accuser and accused, there’s a growing consensus that universities should use a lower standard than the criminal justice system. Some campus rape survivors do go to the police and the courts, but many don’t want to submit themselves to a grueling process that’s highly unlikely to result in a conviction: Only about one in ten rapes reported to the police are ever prosecuted, and an estimated two in every 100 rapists ever serve time. Sanders’s suggestion would make it harder for victims to get justice, and would almost definitely deter many from reporting in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, universities can do a lot to protect a rape victim’s rights to an education, with or without weighing charges against the assailant. As Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of the group Know Your IX and an editor at Feministing, wrote this week:

An extension on a paper due the week after an assault might make the difference between a victim staying in school and dropping out. No police force can provide that kind of accommodation. Don’t want victims “sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them”? A school can often make that happen more quickly than a student can get a restraining order, particularly if he or she has trouble accessing a court.

Brodsky writes, “I don’t think this is the side of history on which Sanders wants to stand.” And I agree that the lefty senator is probably “very open to being pushed” on this issue, to borrow the phrase that Black Lives Matter activist Johnetta Elzie used after Sanders met with members of her movement. That was after another of Sanders’ talking points—“black lives matter, white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter”—made him look similarly unschooled in this election cycle’s biggest grassroots cause.  

Even if Sanders’ heart is in the right place, his comments on campus rape make a telling contrast to Hillary Clinton’s speech on the issue in September. “As president, I’ll fight to make sure every campus offers every survivor the support she needs and will make sure those services are comprehensive, confidential and coordinated,” she told a crowd in Iowa. “Rape is a crime wherever it happens and schools have an obligation. I think it’s both a legal obligation and a moral obligation, to protect every student’s right to get an education free from discrimination, free from fear.” With his stumble this week, Sanders provided a reminder that Clinton isn’t just running as our potential first woman president. She’s also the candidate with the deepest genuine knowledge of the issues women face.