Esquire feature reveals the media's inherent bias and tendency to finger-point in sexual assault coverage


Esquire Magazine published an article March 25 titled, “Occidental Injustice: The Disastrous Fallout when Drunk Sex Meets Academic Bureaucracy.” The lengthy article by Richard Dorment was featured in the “Women and Men” special issue, which aimed to answer the loaded question: What is the state of relations between the men and women of America today? In his article, Dorment closely examined a specific case that occurred early last year between two first-year students at Occidental, “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.” He used the case as an example to question the role of college administrations in dealing with sexual assault cases and boldly asserted that colleges may not be equipped to handle such cases.

My problem with the article does not lie in these questions. My problem lies in the biased reporting Dorment uses that gives voice and credibility to defensiveness while simultaneously discrediting Jane. My problem lies in the narrative Dorment created for John. And finally, my problem lies in the conflation of the roles of the criminal justice system and college administrations.

By putting in subtle details such as the way John “sips” his chai latte, his night full of “possibility”, or the innocent zit above his upper lip, Dorment paints a sympathetic portrait of John that male readers can identify with. In doing so, Dorment creates a platform for men to react defensively to the information he puts forward, which is ultimately unproductive.

In contrast, he breezes over the aspects of the case that gives credibility to Jane’s side, such as the aggressive nature of John’s texts (“Get the fuck back here”). Most importantly, John’s idea of consent, “If someone’s incapacitated, if someone’s passed out, [they] can’t give consent,” contradicts the college’s policy of consent which explicitly states (and which Dorment left out in his citation of Occidental’s definition of incapacitation), “If there is any doubt as to the level or extent of the other individual’s intoxication or impairment, the prudent course of action is to forgo or cease any sexual contact or activity.”

Dorment also solely interviewed John. Jane’s voice is almost entirely missing from the article, yet John’s thoughts on every step of the case are included. Thus, Dorment’s piece ultimately serves as the “boy’s” side on the issue of sexual assault that women and men should fight collectively to combat.

Dorment also confuses the roles of a college and a criminal justice system in dealing with sexual assault cases, arguing that Occidental’s biased system, rather than a sound, universal standard of sexual assault reporting, found John guilty.

“The criminal burden of proof proved too high a barrier for Jane to meet, but the college’s lower preponderance standard delivered the desired outcome for her,” Dorment said. “And John’s expulsion, with a potential mark on his transcript for sexual assault, is likely to result in a life of diminished opportunity.”

Dorment’s criticisms of the faulty, questionable ways that Occidental handled the Jane/John Doe case—such as having all female witnesses and only one adjudicator—are valid. Yet, I do not agree that Jane’s “proof” should have to meet the criminal standard.

The reason the standard of preponderance is lower is because the criminal justice system and colleges are not able to enact the same level of punishment: the criminal justice system can imprison while a college administration can only expel. Furthermore, John is now enrolled in another institution of higher education, which does not reflect “a life of diminished opportunity” and which glaringly discredits the entire point of Dorment’s article.

“When people think of due process, they typically think of the right to have an attorney, if you’re a criminal defendant. Those are not the rights you get in an administrative process,” Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones said. “The reason why is the rights that you get are measured by what’s at stake. If you’re going to lose your liberty, you get the highest rights that can be afforded to you.”

Since the release of the 2011 “Dear colleague” letter, colleges are mandated to respond in an effective manner to sexual assault cases. Dorment raises good a point when he says the criminal justice system may be “better trained” and “better funded” to deal with sexual assault cases. However, as of now, there is no question whether it is a college’s role to respond.

In a real-life example of relations between men and women today, when I voiced my concern about the article’s bias to a few of my guy friends, they shared with me that they interpreted the article as simply fact. This kind of reading is worrisome. We need to read between the lines. Instead of answering the question that the article set out to answer regarding the state of relations between men and women, the article further polarizes men and women over this issue.

It is not helpful to think about sexual assault as men against women or women against men. We can and should all grapple with defining the abstract concepts of “consent,” and “incapacitation,” so as to better understand the current systems put in place to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Dorment mentions a few of the many different definitions of “incapacitation,” and the multitude of definitions in itself can make creating policies to combat sexual assault a difficult task. Instead of pointing fingers or getting defensive, let’s all engage critically in asking ourselves questions that can better the system instead of just slamming it.