A Conversation With UVa Sexual Assault Advocates

It's been 40 days since Sabrina Rubin Erdely published "A Rape on Campus" for Rolling Stone . Since then, the University of Virginia — a place that, as a student, I consider to be my home — and its students have been rocked with feelings of anger, confusion, shock, and betrayal.

When the story first hit the Internet, students were quick to rally behind the story's subject, alleged rape victim Jackie, and call for immediate, comprehensive change. Then, most of us realized the massive, bureaucratic forces we were up against: tricky Title IX legislation, deeply ingrained rape culture, toxic university traditions, the difference between prosecuting a sexual assault through the police and through UVa's Sexual Misconduct Board, and so on. Then Rolling Stone said that it had "misplaced" its trust in Jackie, the Washington Post revealed some alleged inconsistencies with Jackie's story, and the voices at blogs and newspapers around the world erupted again. As the students, we felt, and continue to feel, galvanized to effect change but directionless, furious but cautious with our words lest we be misinterpreted. And we deal with this struggle as the entire country watches.

It's a strange way to live, to say the least.

I have hardly been the most vocal or visible figure from UVA, but I have gotten involved with the discussion surrounding sexual assault on some levels. I wrote previously about what it was like to be a UVa student in the days following the publication of the article, spoke with Charlottesville's WTJU, and provided the voiceover for my friend Atthar's video in support of Jackie. I got some responses from strangers who messaged me on Facebook. Some told me they liked what I'd said. Others accused me of falsifying information and twisting the facts. In the comments section on an article by the UVA newspaper The Cavalier Daily highlighting the video Atthar and I had made, people commented with such depressing and ignorant opinions as, "Hard to come forward [and report rape]? Pick up any phone in the United States and dial 911. End of story" and "Nothing happened. Jackie's a mentally-ill liar. It's all a fraud and a scam." It all made me want to pitch my laptop out a window.

But Alex Pinkleton and Sara Surface have had to contend with far more scrutiny than I. They're both third-year UVA students involved in sexual assault awareness and advocacy at UVA. They're also high school classmates of mine from Maggie L. Walker Governor's School in Richmond, Virginia. I knew, through social media and attending events like Take Back the Night, that they were student leaders, so it didn't surprise me when their names appeared in Erdely's article. What did surprise me was the way Erdely wrote about them. She situates Pinkleton on the fraternity house-studded Rugby Road at night, describing her as "expertly clad in the UVA-after-dark uniform of a midriff-baring sleeveless top and shorts." And she provides one quote from Surface: "I don't know many people who are engrossed in the party scene and have spoken out about their sexual assaults." Neither Pinkleton nor Surface's advocacy work is mentioned. They're simply described as third-year students.

However, amid the media firestorm, Surface and Pinkleton — both friends of Jackie — became two of the most inspiring and eloquent figures in the aftermath of the article's publication. Pinkleton spoke to NBC29 and CBS News, rightly criticizing Rolling Stone for sensationalizing Jackie's story (after all, "rape is good for ratings," as Roxane Gay wrote in Bad Feminist) and failing to do the proper fact-checking. Surface set the record straight about student activism for C-VILLE Weekly, a Charlottesville newspaper, telling journalist Graelyn Brashear that her biggest fear was that "there will be people who don’t think that there are allies at the University, which is just completely untrue." I asked them if they'd sit down with me and tell me about what their lives have been like in the wake of the article — and how the discussion about sexual assault should move forward from here. Both Surface and Pinkleton are strong supporters of sexual assault awareness and education, and because of that, they support Jackie as well.

As we sipped lattes from Richmond's Lamplighter Cafe on an unseasonably warm December day, I told them that I was impressed by the way they'd carried themselves in the spotlight. They burst out laughing. "If only you saw us behind the scenes!" Surface says. "It's been pretty stressful." She recounted the meeting in which UVa's sexual assault awareness groups (One Less and One in Four) were drafting statements to deliver at a media conference immediately following the publication of the article. "We're 20 years old. We shouldn't be writing statements."

Pinkleton said that one of the most surreal parts of the whole experience was being mentioned by Ann Coulter in a tweet:

To me, this seemed both a massive annoyance and an unexpected victory. This is the woman who tweets such gems as "Happy Kwanzaa! The holiday brought to you by the FBI," so she's hardly someone who'd give your story a reasonable read. However, if Coulter's tweeting about something, it means she's not the only one. People are discussing the repercussions of sexual assault and, statistically speaking, at least some of them are likely to try to sift through the details and understand multiple perspectives.

Much of our conversation revolved around the way that the media has portrayed UVa specifically, and rape culture in general. Pinkleton mentioned that she was baffled by the way that some people saw Jackie's story as a reason to discredit every positive aspect of the university. "I saw a comment on one of [my] interviews on YouTube that said, 'Oh, [Pinkleton] was raped here? How do you still like UVa? Lies! Liar!' How are those two related? [The rape could have happened] anywhere, at any college," she says.

Pinkleton's words pointed at an important fact. According to One in Four's website, one in four college women survives rape or attempted rape at some point during her life. Although that number is sobering, it's hardly a UVa-specific issue. Take, for example, the case of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia, the open letter to Harvard from a rape survivor, and a public, documented assault at Ohio University in which no charges were filed.

Text from a banner that the Seven Society placed in several locations around Grounds after the RS article went viral

Surface then brought up the difficulty of adjudication in any system when it comes to sexual assault or rape cases. "I want to have faith in our criminal justice system and innocent-until-proven-guilty, but the problem is, with sexual assault cases, so few of them ever even go to trial. DAs hardly ever take them to trial because they're not going to get high conviction rates," she says. "The conviction rate is, like, two percent. So I want to believe in our system, but..." She trails off and looks at Pinkleton. "Do you know what I'm saying?"

"Yes," says Pinkleton. "How do you prove [rapists] guilty?" She highlights a theoretical case: "People see you at a party. They might see you interacting with this person in a nice way. And then the assault happens in a closed room. No one's around. No witnesses. Maybe you get a rape kit."

"Hardly ever are there signs of bruising. And [when there are] it can be attributed to rough sex," Surface says.

"How do you prove rapists guilty?"

These questions become increasingly complicated when applied to college cases. There are a plethora of reasons: the rules and constraints of Title IX legislation, the lack of understanding surrounding an educational institution's role in sexual assault, the right a student accused (or even convicted) of assault has to an education, and so on.

Emily Renda, a project coordinator for student affairs and one of the most well-spoken advocates I've had the pleasure of meeting, explained the issue perfectly to the Cavalier Daily independent student newspaper: "Many of us live in the glorified legal fiction of Law & Order: SVU. The realities are far more complex, and sadly, far more bleak." (I recommend reading Renda's entire article, as it explains the legal ramifications in a thorough, easy-to-understand way.)

Surface (left) and Pinkleton (right)

Our conversation turned towards the habit that many reporters have of asking advocates whether they've been raped or assaulted. "When I was at a press conference in Richmond," Surface says, "a reporter from the Richmond Times Dispatch came up to me and said, 'So, have you been raped?' And I was like, 'I really don't think that's an appropriate question to ask me. I'm done talking to you.' It's like you don't have legitimacy [if you're not a survivor]." Surface says some reporters who speak to advocates have a habit of trying to label them as survivors because it fit a convenient, newsworthy narrative. Was it not enough, she asks, to simply not want people to be raped?

Pinkleton says that a journalist had asked her if Jackie "looked" like someone who had been raped. "He was like, 'You would know that look, wouldn't you?'"

"There's no such thing as a 'rape face,'" Surface says.

Their comments got me thinking: In our discussion of sexual assault and rape, do we give more attention to survivors and discredit the opinions of those who aren't survivors? Whenever I write about sexual assault, I feel like I have to justify my opinions with experience. But such a standard doesn't apply for other types of advocacy. If you volunteer for the Susan G. Komen foundation, it's rude if someone asks you whether you've survived breast cancer. And if you work for PETA, I'm pretty sure that no one would ever ask if you've been an animal.

Finally, I asked Pinkleton and Surface one of the questions that had been on my mind since the beginning of our conversation: Did they think that something had happened to Jackie?

Their faces changed. A curtain of practiced blankness briefly wiped the expression from their eyes, and I thought of the moments when other reporters must have asked them similar questions. In those moments, how had they known what to say? Had it been fair that they had had to speak for entire movements and entire communities of students? Was it fair that I was asking them this question even now?

But then Surface says "One hundred percent. I think... she displays very clear signs of trauma. There's really no doubt in my mind that something happened to her. What it is, exactly, I don't know. But I got to this point where I was like, 'It's not my place to question her,' because ultimately that's just going to push her farther away. But... some reporters have really pushed us, in a lot of ways, to debunk Jackie's story."

I asked whether being in the media spotlight had changed them and the ways in which they were advocates. Pinkleton says, "It's definitely changed me as an advocate, because I've realized what voices are not being heard ... this conversation has been white. It has been female. And we know that those are not the only survivors out there."

"It's also made me more aware of ... how difficult it is to get people away from that [idea of] stereotypical rape, the one where someone jumps out at you while you're walking down the street, which I naively thought had largely been debunked [as the only definition of rape], but that's not true on a national scale," she says. "But that gives us some direction, moving forward. And I'm happy that there are people like us who will try to help people understand. We just have a long way to go."

Images: Lyra Bartell, leader of the I Stand With Survivors campaign; University of Virginia/Facebook