By the time police got to the bottom of the accuser’s story and determined that her account of being sexually assaulted by two male students at an off-campus party was a complete fabrication, the young men had been expelled from Sacred Heart University, their athletic scholarships revoked.
It could have been worse. Had the investigating officers not been experienced enough to notice the inconsistencies in her story, freshman student and football player Malik St. Hilaire could have been charged and falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit and sent to prison for life. As it was, though, even without a trial, the young men’s lives were destroyed, their educational dreams upended. St. Hilaire lived for months under a cloud of suspicion and had to put his college degree on hold for more than two years, while the drama played out.
Nikki Yovino, who at the time of the alleged assault in October 2016 was a college freshman at Fairfield College, looked bored and even contemptuous as she pleaded guilty to making false accusations. And she got off relatively lightly, receiving a three-year sentence, with two years suspended.
The second young man, who chose to remain anonymous, presented a victim’s impact statement in court at her sentencing, which read in part: “The last almost two years have been my most difficult of my life. … The roller coaster of emotions: fear, anger, sadness, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, and the list goes on. She accused me of what I believe to be a horrendous, horrific crime out of her own selfish concerns. I lost my scholarship, my dream of continuing to play football, and now I am in debt $30,000 and I’m simply trying to get ahead as best as I can.”
The trope of college football players at parties having sex with starry-eyed freshmen is almost as old as college athletics itself. Before now, it typically was not behavior that was criminalized by our culture. But amidst the heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment that has arisen with the #MeToo movement, that culture is changing. In the age of “affirmative consent,” young men navigating the dangerous waters of romance, sex and college sports find themselves on shifting seas. It seems as if the distinctions between flirtation, courtship, loutish behavior and actual assault are blurring.
Research by Fawcett Society, a leading gender equality organization, reveals that the #MeToo movement has caused a “significant shift in attitudes to sexual harassment.” The largest shift in attitudes occurred among people ages 18 to 24. Half of them also believe that our societal standards about “what is acceptable” are shifting.
Some see this change in attitudes as a welcome sign of progress for our culture. But there are also losers in this scenario — namely, falsely accused young men. The attitudes about assault are becoming so rigid that the mere leveling of the accusation is enough to severely damage or destroy the lives of the accused, without proving guilt. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more pronounced than on college campuses, where the Obama administration made a test case of new rules governing sexual engagement pursuant to Title IX — greatly expanding the scope of a law originally intended to assure gender equality in college sports.
The new rules forbade almost all types of sexual behavior between students, including “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” This is a vague standard, to say the least, and colleges, to avoid any legal liability, began forbidding flirting, sexual jokes, and even dating involving college athletes. They put in place rules known as “affirmative consent,” which required explicit permission, rather than a lack of explicit refusal, between sexual partners. These rules meant to curb campus sexual assaults have become state law in California and New York.
#MeToo has grown into badge of solidarity among women. The irony, however, is that nothing could be more disempowering than to teach women that men are their enemy, and that a potential sexual assault is an unstated threat in almost all aspects of male-female interaction.
But the most pernicious effect of the Obama-era rules has been taking the accusers’ version of events as an article faith. Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.) even argued that college men accused of sexual misconduct should be dismissed without any corroborating evidence. “If there are 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people,” he said. “We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty. We’re talking about them being transferred to another university, for crying out loud.”
If only transferring to another university were the only inconvenience. Many of these college athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds and need their athletic scholarships to rise out the ranks of poverty. They cannot simply “transfer” to another college and take their scholarships with them. As a result, many are left with educational debt that they cannot repay, without having completed their education. Moreover, the reputational damage and the trauma experienced by the falsely accused is akin to rape itself. Just ask the young men falsely accused of assaulting Nikki Yovino.
This is truly a tragedy for the concept of “proof.”
We now need a law such that if someone falsely accuses someone else of a sex crime, the false accusation itself is a crime and punishable by the same sentence the innocent person would have endured based on the false accusation.
After all, one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”