When this story came out in the November 19 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, I was appalled and saddened to hear there was a report of a young woman who’d been gang raped at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at The University of Virginia, but I wasn’t surprised. That’s sad, isn’t it? The University of Virginia is my alma mater. I am someone who loved the four years she spent on those hallowed “Grounds”, as we call them. I received an excellent education, the best kind, the kind that inspires one to become a life-long learner, as was the intention of the school’s founder Thomas Jefferson. Yet, I wasn’t surprised to hear a story of a gang rape reported by a national magazine at said alma mater. Disappointed, yes, because I would hope things had changed a little, but surprised? No.
When I began my undergraduate career in the fall of 1982, the university had a reputation, one it apparently still holds today, for being one of the best “party schools” in the country, and what I remember most about my first-year (students are called first-year, second-year, etc. as opposed to freshman, sophomore, etc.) orientation on our all-female hall in my dorm was a focus on keeping ourselves safe in this party atmosphere. We’d been sent very fancy invitations from many of the fraternities welcoming us and inviting us to parties at their houses during that first week of school. We were warned about this tradition and its word play. The boys were targeting us, the first-year students, ostensibly to “meet” us, but it was a “meat market”, a time for them to check out the “first-year meat”. We were advised to be very careful, not to go to parties by ourselves, to stick with each other, not to walk back to our dorm alone. We were even advised, long before anyone talked about date rape drugs, to watch our drinks. No one used the word “rape” when discussing the fraternity brothers, but it was stressed that a drunk fraternity boy just might not take “no” for an answer, might take advantage of us, if we weren’t careful. (Rape was what a “townie” might do to us on the way back home from a party, again if we weren’t careful.) Protecting ourselves, of course, was all up to us. No one, to my knowledge, was going around telling the fraternity boys not to “take advantage of” us.
I, with plenty of friends in tow (I’d listened well to all those warnings), did venture out to the fraternities during those first few weeks of school. Yes, there was free booze. Yes, there was good music and fun dancing. Yes, there were cute guys. But I soon realized that the overall scene wasn’t for me. I remember going into one fraternity house that was jam-packed, wall-to-wall people, and someone felt me up and down. You have to understand that it was so packed, I couldn’t even turn around to get any clue as to who had done it. I was so happy to find my way back out the door into the cool night air. By the time I was a fourth-year student, there were only two fraternities whose parties I would attend and that was mainly to listen to the bands that came to play there.
What saddens me is that this is the same school where my own budding feminism was being awakened. Contrary to what Rolling Stone would have you believe, even thirty years ago, I was busy taking women in fiction courses and psychology of sex roles courses, as well as courses in self insight that were opening my eyes to the plight of women in our society. I was meeting other young women who had been huge supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (remember that?) and having lively debates about it. It was exciting. By day, my fellow students (male and female) were learning that the strongest, happiest marriages were those in which spouses didn’t divide chores along traditional gender roles. We were watching powerful documentaries like “Killing Us Softly” about the degradation of women in advertising. We were learning that when adults think they’re interacting with male babies as opposed to female babies, they treat them differently. We were constantly called to consider questions about nature v. nurture. But, by night, drunk fraternity boys (and others. I don’t want to say that the only rapists among the student body belonged to fraternities. I’m sure there were those who didn’t) were “taking advantage” of girls who said “no” to them. I’d like to think that in thirty years the culture had changed for the better, that women could be safe there.
I may not be surprised that a young woman might be raped at a fraternity party at The University of Virginia (any more than I’m surprised that a young woman might be raped by a colleague at some Wall Street firm. Rape is something that can — and does — happen anywhere), but I’m not supporting Rolling Stone‘s irresponsible reporting, either. Right now, RS and its reporter Sabrina Erdely are being taken to task by The Washington Post because details of Jackie’s story have been contradicted by others. As far as I’m concerned, the whole article reeks of irresponsible journalism. It paints a portrait of a school where, of course, rape and its cover up would be an issue, its being a genteel (read “backwards”), Southern institution where there are no radical feminists. (Hmmm… I guess it’s just some Old Boys Network in charge of the school’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Department, then.) The article unfavorably compares The University of Virginia to places like Columbia University and its “mattress-hauling performance artists” protesting sexual assault. Did Erdely and her editors not understand that those “mattress-haulers” at Columbia were hauling mattresses to protest the fact that their rapists were still roaming free on campus and that the administration at Columbia was doing nothing about it? If Erdely, as she claims, was really trying to write an article about the problem of rape on campus, she should’ve aligned U.Va. with Columbia, not set them up as being different. (I wonder if she was shocked by the protests that unfolded at U.Va. once her article was published, at this school where, apparently, there’s no one interested in protesting violence against women).
Rape is, apparently, a problem on campuses all over this country, and what we need to be doing is finding out why, prosecuting rapists, and putting a stop to it, not acting as though it isn’t a problem as long as there are “radical feminists protests” keeping it at bay. It’s also irresponsible to say “Greek life is huge” at U.Va., noting that nearly 1/3 of the population belongs to fraternities or sororities. I wouldn’t call that “huge”. I would say that when 2/3 of a population doesn’t do something, the 1/3 that does is a minority. Greek life isn’t a “huge” part of many of the students’ experience. Also, her description of Phi Kappa Psi overlooking a “vast manicured field” is laughable to anyone familiar with Madison Bowl (“Mad Bowl”), a playing field that has apparently been cleaned up in recent years, but that used to have a reputation for becoming a muddy mess whenever it rained in Charlottesville, which it does frequently, and was home to many a muddy party and football game back when I was a student. She makes it sound as though the house is some former plantation. This is the sort of reporting that annoyed me and that called the entire article into question, which annoyed me even more, because an article about something so serious ought to be impeccable, to have nothing that can be called into question. Instead, I found myself doubting a good deal of it (not doubting that something horrible had happened to Jackie but that aspects of the story were being embellished by the reporter). RS had the chance to give us a groundbreaking article on the problem of rape on campus and blew it.
At this point, I don’t really care whether or not the details of Jackie’s story are true. Do I believe what she claimed happened to her could have happened to her? Yes. I also believe something did happen to her, as does her former suite mate. Do I believe there are plenty of silent and scared young women out there at universities and colleges all over the country with stories of rape who aren’t telling them? Yes. Do I believe we have biases at our institutes of higher learning, biases that warn young women to beware strangers on the street but to assume their classmates are safe? Yes. Do I believe we live in a society that tells a woman it’s her responsibility to protect herself from rape, rather than telling a man it’s his responsibility not to rape? Yes.
Rolling Stone fell down on its job. I’m hoping The University of Virginia doesn’t. It has the chance here to come out as a school that accepts what’s been going on for years and to make a change, to be a role model, to take rape seriously. Rape is a crime. It should be handled in a court of law, not by a university. Rapists belong behind bars not in classrooms with their victims. The first school to take a real stand on this issue, to have “zero tolerance” reactions to sexual assault, could make history. We talk about honor at The University of Virginia. It seems to me, at this point, that the honorable thing for my alma mater to do is to lead the way in the fight to stop the sexual assault and degradation of women, regardless of whether or not a pop culture magazine has published an inaccurate article. I hope it does.