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Editorial: Treon Harris, rape, truth, justice, and raising the bar on American ways

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An ugly day in Gainesville means we need to turn the mirror on ourselves once more.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The second entry in what Florida's University Athletic Association calls its "Core Values" in the 2014-15 UAA Student-Athlete Handbook is "Integrity." Here's how the UAA says it upholds that value:

We act in a fair, ethical, and honest manner.

We do things the right way every day.

Two values down, there's Respect.

We treat each other with fairness, honesty, kindness, and civility.

Later in the Handbook, there is an explicit outlining of the UAA Sexual Assault Protocol, and the UAA Sexual Harassment Policy. There's the Student Conduct Code, which applies to all UF students, and features this explanation of sexual assault, something that constitutes a violation of the Code.

13. Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Sexual assault: any sexual act or attempt to engage in any sexual act with another person without the consent of the other person or in circumstances in which the person is unable, due to age, disability, or alcohol/chemical or other impairment, to give consent. Sexual misconduct: any intentional intimate touching of another without the consent of the other person or in circumstances in which the person is unable, due to age, disability, or alcohol/chemical or other impairment, to give consent. It is the responsibility of the person initiating sexual activity to make sure the other person is capable of consenting to that activity. Consent is given by an affirmative verbal response or acts that are unmistakable in their meaning. Consent to one form of sexual activity does not mean consent is given to another type of activity.

And then there's the section titled Respect For Women – What Not To Do.

Some behaviors, whether purposeful or unintentional, may be unwelcome, offensive, harmful, or even illegal.

Some examples of unacceptable behavior are:

  • Suggestive or inappropriate communications, notes, letters, e-mail or other written materials
  • Sexual innuendo and unwanted comments or remarks about a person’s clothing, body or activities
  • Suggestive or insulting sounds, e.g. whistling, grunting
  • Unwelcome sexual propositions or invitations for sexual activity
  • Implied or overt sexual threats, e.g. blocking doorways or cornering women
  • Suggestive or obscene gestures
  • Unsolicited physical contact of any kind
  • Pressuring or coercing others to engage in sexual activity
  • Sexual assault
  • Use of any physical, psychological or sexual means to control and/or demean women

As a student-athlete at the University of Florida, the young men and women given scholarships — or the privilege of competing as Gators — are expected to uphold the principles of the UAA, and abide by the guidelines of behavior the UAA and the university set out for them. Those guidelines are explict and clear.

At a minimum, I think an allegation of sexual assault indicates that Treon Harris failed to live up to those guidelines.

Star-divide

If we're being honest, we have to admit this: Treon Harris was probably going to have sex with someone on Saturday night.

After all, that's what lots of college students, of all genders, races, orientations, geographic locales, and ages, do on a Saturday night — and most college students aren't Harris, who led his team to a fourth-quarter comeback on the road. Sex, lots of sex, happens "in college," between college-aged people who can consent to having it, and it isn't just happening on Saturday nights: It's happening on Wednesday mornings, and Monday afternoons, and it's happening a lot.

Sex is an activity that young people partake in, and often.

This is ground-breaking, I know.

But if we're being honest, we also need to note that we don't have frank discussions about this nearly as often as we should.

I and many, many others expected Harris to be treated as a demigod when he arrived back in Gainesville after that win at Neyland; I literally compared him to Icarus, a figure from Greek myth, on Saturday. Some expected him, surely, to have many people wanting to have sex with him; some expected that many people should want to have sex with him.

Nowhere in there is the explicit expectation that the sex would be consensual, because that's always implied, or understood, or just the low bar that gets cleared in the hypothetical situations in which the quarterback wins the game and returns home to a virtual harem. We can wink at sex, sure — an auto-play ad for some lubricant from K-Y played on an Alligator Army page I had open while writing this — but we can't talk about the nuts and bolts of what should be the foundation of having it?

It's time we started making consent an explicit part of the expectation when we talk about sex, time we started making enthusiastic consent — not just mere consent — an expectation for our encounters, time we mandate this as part of our children's education.

In fact, it's been past time to do all that. And the longer we wait, our heads in the sand, the more people we'll have on this planet who are settling for or dwelling in shades of gray when it comes to consent — leading to avoidable confusion and regret at best and sexual assault and rape at worst — rather than having consensual sex in living color.

Let's raise the bar.

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We're also late to balancing respect for victims and accusers in cases like these with respect for the slow wheels of the justice system and acknowledgement that what we want is often at odds with how these things work.

Treon Harris has an attorney, and that attorney, Huntley Johnson, has been Florida's go-to attorney for pro bono representation of its athletes for years and years. He is Florida's go-to attorney because he is very good at his job, and he has, just since 2013, gotten Antonio Morrison out of a charge that was trumped-up bullshit based on a cop overreacting to him barking at a dog and gotten Loucheiz Purifoy out of an arrest that amounted to him being in a car that had weed in it.

And Huntley Johnson has said today that he would be "surprised and disappointed" if Harris is prosecuted.

That doesn't mean Harris didn't sexually assault anyone ... but it's meant to leave no uncertainty that Harris's lawyer believes in his innocence, or at least that there isn't evidence here to merit prosecution. It's not that much different, except in some aspects of tone and its brevity, from the heavy-handed letter that Jameis Winston's lawyer sent in support of his client two weeks ago.

This is how defense attorneys work when a case is tried in the court of public opinion.

And, to be clear, it sucks.

The implication of innocence in a case like this, which has already reportedly been described as "he said, she said," often doubles as an implication that someone is lying. An allegation being made and not carried to trial can double as an implication of innocence, too; in Winston's case, for many, it has.

Accusers often stay quiet in cases of rape, though. Partly, this is to avoid public identification, and the tumult that comes with it — the lamentable, disgusting unintended consequences of reporting a crime against one's person that end up being part of these cases even when the accused isn't famous or beloved. Women just having sex is something that we as Americans do a terrible job of processing (The Scarlet Letter was written in the 19th century; Easy A updated it for the 21st) even when those women aren't taking something away from famous, powerful men.

And those were just stories about sex that "shouldn't" have been had, really; they weren't about any accusations of sexual violence.

And then there are the shades of gray on what constitutes "truth" in a case like this. Prosecutors tend not to take cases they can't win, and their opinions on whether cases are winnable or not can vary wildly, based on all sorts of factors.

Cases differ, too, and Winston's case, in which the investigation went cold for months, and there was no immediate identification of an alleged rapist, and the police work was apparently shoddy, is different from this one, in which the reporting was apparently very swift, a subject was identified right away, and a fair bit of police work was done in literal broad daylight at the Springs Complex this afternoon. Yet the parallels are there, and almost insultingly easy to draw.

The one incontroveribly good thing I have to say about this case so far is that it appears everyone involved in an official capacity in law enforcement is doing their jobs well. With sound, quick, honest, and fair police work, those affected, on both sides, can be far more sure that justice is done.

I hope I can continue to say that tomorrow, and as we go on.

But we need to be fair to Harris, who would merit a presumption of innocence in a court of law that he's not going to get in the court of public opinion, and to his accuser, whom we should believe because we must believe victims, and to the process of investigating this incident, which will take time and care to do right. And we can't — cannot — let frustrations about what Treon Harris would or would not do on a football field, or how the Gators are going to play in his absence, color our perceptions.

I've written thousands of words about Winston's case here, and if I could boil them down to a sentence, it would be "We need to do a better job of discussing sex and consent and the culture that does a poor job of educating us on sexual safety, and we need to do it daily." With this case, we're going to get another chance to do that.

Let's raise that bar, too.

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And yet, despite all of that, I can't help but be disappointed in Treon Harris.

This tweet, from former Florida track athlete Donnie Lee, Jr. (now at Alabama) is one that's stuck with me all day:

Obviously, that's not empirically true. There are rape cases in which there are false allegations are made by women. Some women who say "it's a rape" were not actually raped. Some rapes don't even involve women.

But the rate of false allegations of rape isn't just low: It's very low. This meandering Slate article from September, which is about the issues with believing rape accusations as a default, and thus intent on finding fault with false accusations, still can't come up with statistics showing more than about eight percent of allegations are false.

So, yes, if she says it's rape, it's rape — almost certainly, statistically.

But, moreover, if she says it's rape, you screwed up, definitely.

I am a firm believer in this principle: There should be no doubt in the minds of any party to a sex act, after the sex act, that it was consensual. If there is doubt about the consensuality of the encounter, something went wrong with the communication — and though not every single sex act in which two partners disagree on the consensuality of the act was necessarily rape, every single one that produces those disparate feelings is something that could've, and probably should've, been avoided.

I think Treon Harris, who presumably got the same "If she says it's rape..." bit at his student-athlete orientation that Lee heard at his, could've avoided this one.

I think most American men, especially cisgendered heterosexual men — and here I'm talking about men, and cisgendered heterosexual men, because the vast majority of rapes committed are committed by them, and because they have more power and privilege in American society than women do, not because all men are rapists, or because only men can be rapists — can generally avoid rape allegations by figuring out what partners don't want and not doing those things, and by finding partners who do want to do all sorts of things, and with enthusiastic consent.

Yes, women have choices to make, too, and can make wise, responsible ones, or stupid, risky ones. Yes, this sounds unavoidably like victim-blaming when framed as "You wouldn't be accused of rape had you only done X, Y, or Z," and I can't really get around that. But men, in the abstract, are in the position of greater power and privilege in American society, and in almost the entirety of human society. That power and privilege mean that their choices mean more, point blank.

And while I don't know if Harris actually committed sexual assault or rape, I can't help but think better decision-making by him would probably have kept the allegation from happening in the first place.

It is my hope that no rape occurred in the Springs Complex on Saturday night. It is my hope that Treon Harris is not a rapist. It is my hope that a fair, full investigation will be completed quickly.

It is also my hope that Harris's alleged victim's claim will be treated with the seriousness that all alleged victims' claims should be, and it is my hope that we will learn from this situation and engage with the issues at play, and it is my hope that this is something that gets it through some minds that football is not nearly as important as we think.

I want to root for Treon Harris. But I'm not going to root for a rapist.

And so I'm just going to wait and hope for justice, as all of us should.