In the fall of 2011, I took a course at the University of Virginia called Gender and Violence. I did not make it through the semester. In fact, after nearly two full months of diligent reading, careful studying, and completing assignments — including a massive midterm paper for the class that I never turned in — I slinked into the university office and, for the first and only time in my academic career, I withdrew from a class without saying a word.
Throughout the first few weeks of the course, we focused on rape and sexual assault within universities, specifically ours. The first piece of reading we did for the course was “Crash Into Me: A Survivor’s Search for Justice,” an account by former student Liz Seccuro detailing the gang rape she experienced at the university in the '80s, and how she was consequently lied to by the dean, who told her that the Charlottesville police had no jurisdiction over the frat where the rape occurred. Her case was swept under the rug for more than two decades, and even with a letter of confession from her rapist, she struggled to get the case to trial. At the time, the only comment from the university came from UVA spokesperson Carol Wood, who said, "We don't comment on criminal investigations."
In the weeks after we read Seccuro's account, I realized that rape culture at universities, particularly ours, hadn't changed in 30 years. I knew from the group discussions we had in my Gender and Violence course that there were people in my class who had been victims of sexual assault and had flocked to the class not as a healing exercise, but to educate themselves on sexual assault. The class research led us to sites like UVA Victims of Rape, a website set up by the mother of a UVA rape victim that brutally outlines alleged cases in which UVA denied medical post-rape examinations, refused to discipline attackers, and failed to adhere to federal laws that required the university to send out emails whenever an incident of sexual assault has occurred.
Sitting through that class, I felt the same way a lot of people at the University of Virginia have felt — although I had never experienced sexual assault myself, it was too difficult for me to face the dark truth about our school’s history of handling rape. It was unsettling to read about horrific things happening down the street from me to girls I related to, girls I might sit next to on the bus or pass on campus. I was 20 years old and scared and I didn’t want to think about it anymore, so I dropped the class.
Judging by the mass Internet reaction, a lot of people have read Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone’s exposé “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” that came out last week, including me. Reading it stirred something in me just like Seccuro's account did three years ago. Except this time, I wasn't scared. I was furious. And the more I read, the more furious I became.
We knew this was a problem . We knew back then, when I was taking that class in 2011. We knew long before Erdely's subject Jackie experienced that unthinkable nightmare at Phi Kappa Psi, and yet it became clear from her gruesome story and every sickening account Rolling Stone reported along with hers (Emily Renda, who was raped her first year at a party; the student under the pseudonym "Stacy" who was discouraged from pursuing charges against a sexual assault; Erdely's "upperclasswomen guides" who detailed their friends' horror stories as they walked up Rugby Road, pointing out the "roofie frat") that nothing had been done to change the dialogue of rape culture at the university.
And then, beyond my fury, there was guilt. I know that these crimes come as a surprise to a lot of the university’s alumni, to those who were not personally affected by sexual assault during their time at UVA, and had no reason to look into the statistics. But I knew. Everyone in my Gender and Violence class knew. It is heartening to see the people at the university rallying for change now, but what about last year, or the year before that, or the year before that?
We’d all been silent. And in our discomfort, in our silence, we had all let this happen for far too long.
In light of recent events, all alumni and current students have been issued various letters over email meant to assure us that the faculty was aware of the problem. The first came from Tom Faulders, president of the Alumni Association, assuring us that President Teresa Sullivan was bringing in Charlottesville police to fully investigate the allegations in the article, and providing us with a link to express our thoughts on the article, a portal that I am assuming, based on the petition for the frat ban that started circulating among students and alumni as soon as the Rolling Stone piece came out, was flooded with the same indignant, infuriated response that I had.
The second message came from President Sullivan herself, suspending all fraternity activities from now until January 9:
As you are aware, I have asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate the 2012 assault that is described in Rolling Stone. There are individuals in our community who know what happened that night, and I am calling on them to come forward to the police to report the facts. Only you can shed light on the truth, and it is your responsibility to do so. Alongside this investigation, we as a community must also do a systematic evaluation of our culture to ensure that one of our founding principles — the pursuit of truth — remains a pillar on which we can stand. There is no greater threat to honor than secrecy and indifference. I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination. Meaningful change is necessary, and we can lead that change for all universities. We can demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen and that if they do, the responsible are held accountable to the law. This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes. This morning the Inter-Fraternity Council announced that all University fraternities have voluntarily suspended social activities this weekend. This is an important first step, but our challenges will extend beyond this weekend. Beginning immediately, I am suspending all fraternal organizations and associated social activities until January 9, ahead of the beginning of our spring semester. In the intervening period we will assemble groups of students, faculty, alumni, and other concerned parties to discuss our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence on grounds. On Tuesday, the Board of Visitors will meet to discuss the University’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault as well as the specific, recent allegations.
There are several points about this message that bother me. One is that the actions she has outlined here are merely a start. Getting to the bottom of one specific and horrible instance of rape, while important, will not in any way satisfy the other assault cases that similarly go ignored at UVA.
Second, suspending fraternal activities until January 9 will do nothing to solve the problem. In fact, the temporary banning may only make matters worse. The ban should be permanent. I know that sounds extreme, but consider for a moment that the University of Virginia traditionally does its Greek life recruiting in the spring semester, otherwise known as the day after this supposed ban will be lifted. To make it more laughable, most of this ban will take place over winter break. You know what this ban is to fraternities? Another slap on the wrist. Another bumpy wave before they are back on to smooth sailing. Another misguided attempt at solving a problem that we already know has not been solved by earlier attempts at disciplinary action.
Like many other alumni and parents, I immediately sent an email to the university expressing my thoughts on this, and like many other alumni and parents, I have yet to hear anything back. I also reached out to President Sullivan regarding her long-term plans to prevent the pattern of handling rape and sexual assault at UVA beyond the ban and the investigation of Jackie's reported rape, but she did not respond by the time of publication.
For too long, UVA has pushed victims to "keep it in the university" for the sake of maintaining the privacy of not only the victims, but the rapists. Rolling Stone mentions several anonymous cases in which victims were given the option to confront their rapists or have them stand before a trial of students and faculty; the article also mentioned that not a single person has been expelled from the school for sexual assault since 1998, despite the fact that 38 victims have come forward to the dean just in the last year alone.
But it gets even worse. What is almost as disappointing as the school's response to these incidents is some of the fraternity members' reactions to the shutdown, which reveal a disregard for the university and the safety of its students that if anything only further shows how necessary the suspension is to make long-term change at the school. Though many of the fraternities have been compliant and understanding, some of their members — including alumni — have flocked to social media, writing defaming things about President Sullivan for suspending fraternities, like this example I saw in my Facebook feed:
Those who are complaining about the shutdown are not only showing a huge lack of respect for the people who have suffered from the horrific assaults committed in their midst, but are also perpetuating the problem at hand. There are plenty of men in fraternities who would never dream of doing something as horrible as the incident documented in Rolling Stone. But those who are expressing their anger at the frats being shut down are also saying something much worse: I don't care that this has happened to you. My happiness in this fraternity is more important than the rape and subsequent years of psychological distress that the existence of frats has caused for countless women at my school.
I have never been a big fan of frats. I never desired to be a part of Greek life at the university once dubbed "The Capitol of the Bro-man Empire," and was disinterested even more in big parties. I went to exactly two of them, both at the same frat (the supposed "good" frat), and the two times I went I left the dance floor almost immediately after being grabbed in inappropriate places. It was irritating enough that I was too uncomfortable to consider going again.
When the Rolling Stone article was released, I was one of many who posted on Facebook about my disgust, but I wasn't even thinking of those two parties I attended. However, within a day of my outraged post, I received a text from a friend who was in that fraternity posing what seemed to be an out of the blue, defensive question with some unsettling implications:
"Was it you who told me you were uncomfortable at [name of frat]'s parties?"
I answered back right away: "I'm sure that many girls told you that, but yes, I was among the 100% of women whose ass and boobs were grabbed many times in the course of the five entire minutes I spent in that basement."
His answer: "Actually only you've told me!"
I answered him back saying maybe I was the only one who ever told him about it, and he never brought it back up, but the implication was clear: He thought his frat was exempt, and he was willing, even in the most subtle of ways, to imply that I had either lied about my experience, or that whatever happened to me in that frat was not the fault of his brothers.
This is a man who I respect, a man I have been friends with for many years. It was shocking to hear it coming from him, but it highlights the bigger issue at hand: just how ingrained this culture in defense of fraternities has become at the University of Virginia.
I understand that people are upset about the shutdown. But you know what they should be upset about? Rape and brazen sexual assault. It is heinous and unforgivable. It should not come with second chances. I don't care that all frat guys don't behave this way. I don't care if they "had no idea" incidents like those documented in Rolling Stone were going on. The fact of the matter is that they know now, and they should care. Because this doesn't just happen at UVA — it happens at fraternities everywhere. It's happened at a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee fraternity that allegedly drugged and color-coded women based on vulnerability. It happened at a Georgia Tech fraternity that sent an email educating new members on how to "lure rapebait." It happened at a Wesleyan fraternity called the "rape factory" that insisted an alleged victim publicly identify herself if she was to bring her attackers to trial. It is a terrifying frame of mind that has weeded its way into our schools and compromised the safety of everyone on campus.
Fraternity brothers, this isn't about you. This is about so much more than you. This is about the basic rights and safety of young girls at not just our university, but at universities across the nation. Don't try to tell me your fraternity should be exempt; every fraternity at the school has been tainted by these allegations of assault. Don't try to tell me that the problem will be solved; you've had too many chances to correct the problem.
How many women will have to endure what Jackie endured before someone does what is necessary to end the history of rape culture at our school — and all schools — once and for all?
Images: small_realm/Flickr; Facebook