[See update below.]
Rolling Stone has an explosive story about rape at the University of Virginia, where the culture of drinking and rape and sexual assault centered around fraternities seems to be out of control. The report has rocked the campus and the university’s president has suspended the fraternities until the beginning of the next semester. The story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely is both shocking and disgusting in describing what female students went through.
And as usual, apologists have argued that the situation is being overhyped, that assaults arose out of ‘misunderstandings’ about consent, and that cracking down on these things would undermine hallowed traditions. Those traditions include an absolutely disgusting fight song called Rugby Road (the name of street where the fraternities are located) and that looks down on the victims and ostracizes them if they should have the courage to complain.
Erdely says that this culture allows a dangerous type of predator to roam freely.
[Psychologist David] Lisak’s 2002 groundbreaking study of more than 1,800 college men found that roughly nine out of 10 rapes are committed by serial offenders, who are responsible for an astonishing average of six rapes each. None of the offenders in Lisak’s study had ever been reported. Lisak’s findings upended general presumptions about campus sexual assault: It implied that most incidents are not bumbling, he-said-she-said miscommunications, but rather deliberate crimes by serial sex offenders.
In his study, Lisak’s subjects described the ways in which they used the camouflage of college as fruitful rape-hunting grounds. They told Lisak they target freshmen for being the most naïve and the least-experienced drinkers. One offender described how his party-hearty friends would help incapacitate his victims: “We always had some kind of punch. . . . We’d make it with a real sweet juice. It was really powerful stuff. The girls wouldn’t know what hit them.” Presumably, the friends mixing the drinks did so without realizing the offender’s plot, just as when they probably high-fived him the next morning, they didn’t realize the behavior they’d just endorsed. That’s because the serial rapist’s behavior can look ordinary at college. “They’re not acting in a vacuum,” observes Lisak of predators. “They’re echoing that message and that culture that’s around them: the objectification and degradation of women.”
One need only glance around at some recent college hijinks to see spectacular examples of the way the abasement of women has broken through to no-holds-barred misogyny: a Dartmouth student’s how-to-rape guide posted online this past January; Yale pledges chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!”
That last chant captures perfectly the mentality of people who think that women are theirs to do what they want with. And to top it all, colleges seem to be more concerned about their reputation than the wellbeing of their students. While they have counselors that students can talk to about their ordeal, these counselors are employees of the university and sometimes nudge victims to choose some form of in-house mediation or internal disciplinary proceedings under the guise of giving them the choice of what action to take. But rape is one of the most heinous of violent crimes that requires the full weight of the criminal justice system to properly investigate, and universities are nowhere close to being able to do the kind of rigorous investigation and prosecution it demands.
It is true that sometimes victims, fearing the ordeal of criminal proceedings, hesitate to go to the police even though they have every right to. But the counselors provided by the university, however well meaning, have an inherent conflict of interest and should not be the people advising the students. In order to preserve the victim’s sense of agency as well as giving them a better sense of the various options and their consequences, any student who says that she was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted should be referred to someone at an independent rape counseling center that has no connection to the university and whose main charge is helping the victim and not in preserving the reputation of the college.
This situation has to be brought back under control. Colleges that make no effort to do so deserve to have their lack of action spotlighted, however much harm it may do to their recruitment, their relations with alumni, and the money they receive from donors. Rolling Stone is to be commended for their doggedness in pursuing this story despite less than complete cooperation from the college..
As a result of the publicity, the University of Virginia has suspended all fraternities until the end of the semester but I am not sure what exactly that means and if they are just trying to buy time and hope that the whole thing blows over and they can go back to business as usual. You can be sure that powerful alumni of the fraternities and the secret societies will exert great pressure on the school administration and trustees to not make major changes.
Because it’s tradition, you see.
UPDATE: It turns out that there were serious journalistic flaws in the reporting of this story. Olga Khazan sums up what happened and the implications.
After Rolling Stone published the piece in late November, the Internet at first wolfed it down as a masterfully written outrage-read, and then later meticulously picked apart its reporting. On Friday, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana appended an editor’s note at the top of the story admitting that there are problems with the narrative the main character, a woman named Jackie, recounted to Erdely.
“There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” Dana wrote, “and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
The problem seems to stem from the fact that Erdely, honoring a promise to Jackie, did not attempt to contact the fraternity brothers whom Jackie accused of gang-raping her during her freshman year. Now, several of Jackie’s close friends and rape-prevention advocates at UVA are doubting her story, and a lawyer for Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity implicated in the rape, has released a statement rebutting her claims.
Most, if not all, of Erdely’s story might still hold up. But even if the story turns out to be 98 percent right, this whole episode is terrible news for survivors of rape on college campuses and elsewhere.
Rape stories, meanwhile, are a genre that’s uniquely unforgiving of inaccuracies. Universities and fraternities could use an inconsistent story as an excuse to move on to other issues and to downplay their assault problems. Anti-feminists brandish wrongful accusations in order to claim that “most” rape victims are liars. Victims, meanwhile, become even more skittish, understandably wishing to spare themselves the same scrutiny and persecution. The overwhelming majority of rapes are never reported, in part because many victims fear they won’t be believed.
As the chart above, from The Enliven Project, shows, only about 2 to 8 percent of rape claims turn out to be fabricated, but those that are echo in the media and in public discourse for seemingly much longer than the true ones do.