UVA Officials Reacted to Rape Culture Only Once the World Started Watching (Updated)

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Commentary Violence

UVA Officials Reacted to Rape Culture Only Once the World Started Watching (Updated)

Martha Kempner

After a damning article about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity erupted in a firestorm of negative press, school officials leapt into action. But the timing of their response suggests it is more a public relations strategy rather than a real attempt to effect change.

UPDATE, December 5, 2:28 p.m.: On Friday, Rolling Stone released a statement on its story about UVA, claiming that “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account [the woman at the center of the story], and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” The Washington Post has raised doubts about some details of her story as well, though it is not yet clear how many details of the story were misreported. In an interview with the Post, Jackie told the newspaper “that she stands by her version of the events.”

Content note: This article contains a description of alleged sexual assaults.

Last week, Rolling Stone published an in-depth article about rape culture at the University of Virginia, instantly grabbing the attention of a nation already struggling to comprehend the extent of our campus sexual assault crisis. It also, apparently, grabbed the attention of the school’s administration. After at least a year of reported inaction, officials suddenly jumped to announce that they had suspended all Greek life activities until January, called an emergency meeting of the University’s Board of Visitors, and asked the local police to help investigate the allegations in the Rolling Stone piece.

These actions are the very definition of “too little, too late”: the suspension comes just in time for Thanksgiving and then winter breaks, meaning that, unless extended, it will actually affect only about two weeks of the academic year. And the timing of the reaction smacks of an administration that is far more worried about its brand and reputation than its students.

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Stories that challenge readers to think about rape on campus seem to come up every day. Recently, we’ve learned about a young woman at Columbia University who dragged her mattress around campus to protest the administration’s lack of response to her allegations of rape; the college president who suggested women frequently make up rape allegations after a regretted sexual experience; a lawsuit against a Georgia Tech fraternity that had previously released instructions for “luring your rape-bait”; the president of Florida’s Eckerd College sent an email to students suggesting that they could prevent sexual assault if they drank less and “practiced virtue in the area of sexuality”; and a Texas fraternity that lost its charter for hanging a banner reading “no means yes and yes means anal.” These stories all come at a time when the White House has made addressing sexual assault on campus a priority and the U.S. Education Department is investigating 86 schools for their handling or mishandling of sexual assault cases.

Yet even with this kind of saturation, the University of Virginia (UVA) story stood out because of the horrific details of gang rape it included, the depth and breadth of the reporting behind it, and the suggestion by the Rolling Stone piece’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, that both students and administrators care more about the reputation of the institution founded by Thomas Jefferson than the health, safety, and well-being of its student body.

The woman at the center of the Rolling Stone article is being called Jackie. Now a junior, Jackie’s story is horrifying—yet not unfamiliar, given the prevalence of rapes on campuses in the United States. According to Jackie, when she was a month into her first year at UVA, she was invited to a fraternity party by an older student with whom she worked as a lifeguard. She saw it as a date, but when he invited her upstairs ostensibly to be alone, Jackie says she found herself locked in a dark room with an unknown number of men. Someone pushed her to the ground; someone else held her down and covered her mouth. For the next three hours, Jackie says she was raped by seven men while two others stood guard and barked orders. When she recognized one of her attackers from an anthropology class, he lost his nerve and his erection; after the other men in the room goaded him and called him a “pussy,” she says he raped her with a beer bottle instead.

University officials did not hear of the attack right away. As Jackie describes it to Rolling Stone, right after the incident, which happened in 2012, some of her new friends discouraged her from going to campus authorities or the Charlottesville police department. They worried about Jackie’s reputation as “the girl who cried rape” and their own popularity as a result. Instead, Jackie drew inward, stopped going to classes, and quit her job. Eventually, however, she reached out for help from her mother and a psychiatrist.

The following semester, Jackie’s academic dean referred her and her mother to Dean Nicole Eramo, the head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board. Eramo explained Jackie’s options: She could go to the police, she could file a formal misconduct complaint which would be adjudicated by a jury of students and faculty and could end in punishment for the accused, or she could file an informal complaint which could end in an apology and perhaps the suggestion that the accused seek counseling. Jackie decided she was not ready to take any of those steps. She did, however, allow Eramo to introduce her to other survivors; in the semesters since, she has become very involved as an advocate for others who have been assaulted.

According to Rolling Stone, this meeting between Eramo and Jackie took place toward the end of her second semester on campus, which would have been the spring of 2013. This means that administrators have known about the alleged gang rape for a year and a half. Obviously, they could not press criminal charges without Jackie’s involvement. It seems as though they were also not in a position to file misconduct complaints—formal or informal. But as Erdely explains in the article, the information Jackie gave Eramo was not confidential. So if she or other officials had wanted to react to it in some way, they could have.

They could have, oh, I don’t know, suspended Greek activities. They could have called an emergency meeting of the Board of Visitors to discuss the problem of sexual assault on campus. Or, perhaps, they could have asked the police to help investigate the alleged incident. Sound familiar? It should—they did all of the above, but only after Rolling Stone‘s reporters blew the case open.

But before this week, they did nothing. They only told Jackie when she met with Eramo again in 2014 to share stories from other survivors that it was likely that all the men involved had graduated.

And this is what makes me the angriest. The alleged details of the case did not change just because they were put in print and circulated widely around the Internet. The rape culture on campus did not originate when people outside of Charlottesville began talking about it. The role of Greek life at UVA in facilitating—and even encouraging—sexual assault is the same as it has been for decades, only now it’s being put under a national microscope.

The administration reportedly knew about the gang rape for over a year and did nothing until we were all watching. Until articles started appearing daily in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times questioning how UVA would recover its reputation. Until CNN ran stories that made the stately campus seem anything but peaceful. Until UVA’s name was being actively dragged through the beer-soaked mud.

If officials truly cared about their students, it wouldn’t take pressure from the entire country to get them to protect them. It wouldn’t even take the urging from the students themselves. It would just be the way things were done.

If Dean Eramo and her colleagues had looked at Jackie’s case and made a professional judgment call that it did not warrant official attention for whatever reason—there was not enough evidence, there were too many holes in her story, the accused could not be adequately identified—then that decision should continue to hold today, even with the bad publicity. The official response should have been to explain exactly why they thought, and continue to think, that no further action in this case was warranted. Though UVA President Teresa Sullivan released a statement claiming that the article included details not previously disclosed to university officials, it’s clear from Erdely’s piece that administrators have known quite a bit of information about Jackie’s case for quite some time.

It isn’t that the Rolling Stone article is a font of new evidence, it’s a giant glaring spotlight. And the fact that the administration reacted only once that spotlight was turned on suggests that Erdely is right: “At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students—who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture—and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”

Of course, having done nothing until the world was watching may have been exactly what brought on the biggest scandal of all.