In her new Rolling Stone feature on rape culture at the University of Virginia, Sabrina Rubin Erdely starts with horrifying descriptions of frats as rape traps. Then the story turns to institutional flaws that are equally damaging to victims: a process that pretends to be victim-centered but in fact serves the ultimate goal of preventing a prestigious school like UVA from being known as “the rape school.”
Here’s a key passage from the story that explains how the university lays that trap after young women have fallen into the rape trap:
When Jackie finished talking, [Dean Nicole Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board,] comforted her, then calmly laid out her options. If Jackie wished, she could file a criminal complaint with police. Or, if Jackie preferred to keep the matter within the university, she had two choices. She could file a complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, to be decided in a “formal resolution” with a jury of students and faculty, and a dean as judge. Or Jackie could choose an “informal resolution,” in which Jackie could simply face her attackers in Eramo’s presence and tell them how she felt; Eramo could then issue a directive to the men, such as suggesting counseling. Eramo presented each option to Jackie neutrally, giving each equal weight. She assured Jackie there was no pressure – whatever happened next was entirely her choice.
Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.
“This is an alarming trend that I’m seeing on campuses,” says Laura Dunn of the advocacy group SurvJustice. “Schools are assigning people to victims who are pretending, or even thinking, they’re on the victim’s side, when they’re actually discouraging and silencing them. Advocates who survivors love are part of the system that is failing to address sexual violence.”
Erdely proves her point by digging up the hard numbers. Of 38 reported sexual assaults in the last academic year, nine followed through with “complaints.” Twenty-nine “evaporated.” And these are the victims who actually took the step of coming forward. Other victims tell of the pressure — from fellow students and from the university itself — to stay silent. The persistent message: It’s time for you to heal, and not hurt the university or the frats.
I ran across this story thanks to my friend and mentor Steve Weinberg. In his Facebook post, Weinberg wrote:
Lately, I’ve noticed a ho-hum attitude (I cannot prove this, it’s impressionistic) about campus rape. “Another campus rape story? Oh, no! I’m going to ignore it.” Well, I hope you don’t fall into that trap for the sake of daughters and sons and the entire enterprise of higher education.
Erdely’s story is much more than just another campus rape story. It makes us understand the problem, through the power of her reporting and narrative, in new, clearer ways. It’s one of the most powerful victim-centered stories I’ve seen in some time. Read it.