By Robby Soave
It was the summer of 2014 when two Michigan State University students, “Nathan” and “Melanie,” agreed to meet up and have sex.
More than two years later, MSU found Nathan responsible for sexual misconduct—in accordance with Title IX, the federal statute interpreted to prohibit sexual harassment on college campuses—because he had waited for the wrong moment to initiate the encounter.
Melanie filed the complaint.
What exactly happened between the two students? Bridge‘s Laura Berman has a terrific write up of the case here, based on transcripts of interviews and MSU’s case files. According to Berman, Nathan and Melanie began casually dating in October 2013. She was a freshman, and he was a sophomore—and a virgin, until they started having sex (initiated by Melanie). Their relationship wasn’t perfect: Melanie wanted to feel closer to him emotionally, he wanted something more casual and also told his friends that she “bullied” him, according to Bridge.
In May of 2014, during summer vacation, they decided to meet up and hook up somewhere off campus. When they reached the rendezvous point, they started having sex in Nathan’s car. They were soon noticed by a bystander and had to stop.
Melanie was triggered by the event:
She cried, and said she had a flashback to an earlier, abusive relationship in high school. Nathan tried to comfort her, but she described her tearful reaction as distressed, “extremely upset.” Later, they met a few of her friends for dinner in Plymouth and, after that, walked along the train tracks for an hour or longer, as he listened, while she talked. He recalls listening sympathetically. She remembers him dismissing how upset she was, and called his reaction “invalidating.”
Eventually, they sat down, his arm around her. A few hours earlier, they had been interrupted trying to have sex in a car. She says she told him she didn’t want to have sex again that night. This time, he reached beneath her shirt and bra, in what he later described as “a momentary touching of the breast,” and she characterized in a text the next day as “a groping.”
“I told you I don’t want to do this anymore,” she recalled saying to him. “And he did immediately stop.”
That was it.
Nathan was never violent with Melanie, she admitted in interviews. And though MSU officials later claimed that Nathan pushed her down and pulled up her shirt—based on what is anyone’s guess—Melanie flatly rejected that assertion. He had tried to resume sexual contact by touching her breast, which was something she hadn’t given explicit permission for him to do at that exact moment.
They stopped seeing each other after that. Melanie felt betrayed because Nathan had tried to have sex with her at a time when she was talking about feeling abused.
About a year later, Melanie began taking hormones in order to transition to a man. She changed her name and started identifying as a man. She plans to eventually undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Her transition was one of the reasons she decided to file a Title IX complaint against Nathan, 16 months after the incident.
“I suppose transitioning was one of the driving elements for why I reported, because I felt uncomfortable using the men’s restrooms in my residential college, for fear that I would encounter him,” she said, according to Bridge.
MSU subjected Nathan to two different Title IX procedures. Because of an internal error, Nathan was initially judged in accordance with MSU’s updated Title IX policy, adopted after the incident, which was more explicit about the need for affirmative consent. When the mistake was realized—the university can’t hold Nathan to a standard that wasn’t in place at the time of the incident—his case was re-heard.
The result was the same: Nathan was found to have violated MSU’s sexual misconduct policy. The university put him on probation and prohibited him from having contact with Melanie, but did not remove him from campus. He was eventually able to graduate.
Still, his transcript notes that he was guilty of an unspecified sexual offense.
That’s the short version; read Bridge for more details.
Nathan maintains his innocence: He says Melanie never specified that sex was off the table after they were interrupted in the car. He thought, based on the cues he was receiving, that Melanie was still interested in having sex.
Evidently he was mistaken in this belief. But that’s the whole problem with asking university bureaucrats to play relationship police in complicated and ambiguous scenarios. To avoid a finding of responsibility, Nathan essentially would have had to convince them that Melanie’s complaint was completely unreasonable and his actions were perfectly fitted to the situation. In cases like this, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for the accused to prove his innocence.
We can be sorry about Melanie’s pain, and advocate for the university to provide her whatever help she needs, without making Nathan’s life miserable because of a missed cue that led to fleeting contact.
This case is a perfect example of why the Trump administration should rein in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, the agency that advises universities on Title IX compliance. Restoring due process and the presumption of innocence to college campuses should be a paramount goal of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, assuming that she is eventually confirmed.