Joe Biden is issuing a new executive order that will begin reversing Trump administration policies that affect the way colleges can handle complaints of rape and sexual assault.
The president, who has long campaigned against domestic abuse and sexual violence, will also be establishing a White House Gender Policy Council, according to the Associated Press.
Mr Biden promised during his campaign that he would bring a “quick end” to the rules established under the Trump administration, which have been the subject of protracted litigation ever since they were finalised at the start of 2020.
As a wave of high-profile cases and then the #MeToo movement swept the country during the last decade, both the Obama and Trump administrations took actions on the campus sexual assault problem – but they pulled in very different directions.
In 2011, the Obama administration issued new guidance on the implementation of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases that spelled out schools’ obligations where assault and harassment occur among students. “If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
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Three years later, the White House’s Task Force on Women and Girls (later disbanded under Donald Trump) released a report on rape and sexual assault that presented shocking figures about the prevalence of sexual crimes, the president signed a memorandum establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. “We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Mr Biden, who has long been a legislative leader on issues including violence against women, was one of the administration’s leading campaigners on the issue, regularly visiting campuses to discuss it. He helped lead It’s On Us, an initiative meant to promote a change of culture around sexual politics and particularly male entitlement and impunity.
In September 2017, Mr Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, rescinded the Obama administration’s 2011 Title IX policy, complaining that “Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today” and insisting that victims’ rights be balanced against those of the accused. She and the administration were criticised for making it harder and less safe for victims to report what had happened to them.
While she ultimately stopped short of a full overhaul of Title IX, Ms DeVos released changes to it in May 2020. Under the new regulations, which ran to some 2,000 pages, the definition of sexual harassment was narrowed, while the obligations placed on schools were loosened.
Once again, Ms DeVos emphasised the importance of protecting those accused as well as victims; too many students, she said, had “lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault”.
Mr Biden’s campaigning on the issue, meanwhile, has continued since he left office as vice president. In one speech at George Mason University in early 2017, he urged students to step in and call out “locker room talk” – a term invoked by Mr Trump to justify his own boasts about assaulting women.
Explaining that a “dead drunk” woman cannot consent to sex, Mr Biden told the audience they had a duty to protect each other. “You’ve got to speak up. You cannot let that kind of talk be bred on the college campus. You’ve got to do what I’ve done, what my father taught me. Turn and say, you’re a horse’s tail. Only a little more graphic.”