On Rolling Stone and UVA

As a UVA graduate student, I have had plenty of conversations about the rape scandal and now infamous Rolling Stone article over the last week or two. I haven't blogged about the issue because I preferred to wait for a full investigation and recommendations before commenting. 

Yet, the quasi-retraction of that story in the face of a Washington Post story that called some of the details of a gang rape described by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely into doubt makes this story even bigger and more important to dissect.

I prefer not to write much about the veracity of story told by UVA junior "Jackie" about being gang raped as a freshman. Post reporter T Rees Shapiro (who did a far more thorough job reporting the story than Erdely did) has called several key pieces of Jackie's story into question through two well reported stories (the one linked above, and yesterday's follow up

Does that make Jackie a liar? Even as more and more people come to that conclusion, I don't see how any of us can do so intelligently without waiting for police to complete their investigation into the case.

For while Shapiro calls Jackie's story into question, he also cites multiple friends and acquaintances as believing that Jackie suffered some sort of awful trauma around the time of the alleged gang rape. 

Additionally, Amanda Taub offered an insightful potential explanation on Vox.com, noting that many trauma victims misremember details of horrors for a myriad of reasons (PTSD, with which Jackie has been diagnosed, the lack of importance of individual details in the face of such an attack, etc). 

Thus, it is quite possible that Jackie was in fact sexually assaulted violently, but has told a variety of jumbled stories for reasons best explained by psychologists. 

Nonetheless, the focus on Jackie's story and Erdely's abysmal reporting, has removed the focus from where it properly belongs—the issue of campus rapes, especially at UVA.  

The larger picture cannot be forgotten because of the heated debate as to whether Jackie is perpetrating a fraud or is a horribly traumatized victim being sullied by all sorts of social media villains. 


For this reason, I believe that the reaction of some who have demanded/asked that UVA President Theresa Sullivan reinstate fraternities (they are currently suspended at least until the start of the spring semester) is as disgraceful as the performance of Rolling Stone. Those people clearly don't get it. Many other women have come forward in the last few weeks to detail sexual assaults at UVA. 

Nothing about that situation changes regardless of whether Jackie's story is or is not true. A full investigation into the frequency of sexual assaults at UVA, and a hard examination of the school's culture must occur.

It struck me in talking to peers and thinking about the original Rolling Stone article myself after its release, no one exclaimed shock or surprise. The article made my stomach turn, and my heart went out to the victims. Yet, it all seemed plausible in part because of the history of UVA and its culture. 

This, after all, is the same university where, four years ago, a male lacrosse player murdered a female lacrosse player in a jealous, drunken rage weeks before graduation. 

Tradition is a wonderful part of college. My college experience benefitted from both university wide traditions, and traditions passed down by older friends. Yet, at UVA tradition always felt like it went a bit too far. 

UVA worships (far beyond the degree to which most universities venerate their founders) a founder whose own sexual history is anything but virtuous. 

Indeed, UVA clings tenaciously to all sorts of customs because of their ties to Thomas Jefferson (known on campus as Mr. Jefferson). Among them, the school's antiquated honor code (maybe the most important part of Erdely's story was the jaw-dropping revelation that while students can be expelled for cheating on an assignment or shoplifting from a convenience store, they cannot be expelled for sexual assault). Students must write out an honor pledge (displayed prominently in all classrooms) on each assignment. 

The notion of an honor code, fits with the value placed on honor in Southern culture. Yet, as research (See this ethnography) has demonstrated, this concept of honor has a darker, violent side. Additionally, as historians have shown, this culture has its roots in a society built around patriarchy and racism. 

The school's fealty to Jefferson extends to an insistence on building every new building to match the red brick style of Jefferson's original buildings, and employing unique terms for its campus (grounds), students (1st through 4th years vs. freshmen through seniors at other universities), and professors (Mr. and Mrs. vs Dr. or Professor). Students even compete for rooms in Jefferson's original housing, even though these rooms offer no air conditioning. 

Within a few weeks at UVA, I noticed they did things differently (I remember attending my first football game and being stunned to see students in UVA monikered pants and formal attire, rather than the more typical tee shirts, body paint, etc). 

While none of these traditions are in and of themselves bad, they contribute to an overall culture where the community resists change and new community members feel compelled to adhere to doing things the UVA way. 

Given many of the sexist and gendered norms of the past, it is not unreasonable to assume that elements of this very traditional UVA culture might be sexually oppressive or gendered in some way, and might have been passed along unthinkingly over the years. I've seen too many credible accounts of sexual assault at UVA to believe that this culture is not a problem. 

As this is a blog devoted to policy and politics, I also want to make one observation that I have not seen in any other forum—I think our public policy contributes to the high incidences of sexual assaults on college campuses. 

There are legitimate reasons to favor a drinking age of 21—among them, the potential to reduce teenage driving deaths and the concern that lowering the drinking age to 18 might make it easier for even younger teens to obtain alcohol. 

Yet, we ought to realize that college students are going to drink regardless of whether the drinking age is 18, 21, or 25. Critically, having a drinking age of 21 drives college drinking underground—out of bars, where trained bartenders serve drinks, and into fraternity basements, where often times students drink spiked punches with little idea of what they are actually drinking. 

I'm not contending that bars provide perfectly safe environments, but patrons have a far greater certainty as to what is in their drinks and what the alcohol content is than they do in a basement with low lighting and a trashcan full of punch. 

Students often feel pressured into attending these parties because they are the only source of alcohol, especially early in one's freshman year. This reality drives some of the predatory climate described by Erdely.  

Thus, it is time to have a national conversation as to whether a well intentioned law is doing more harm than good. This may seem counterintuitive at a time when many consider binge drinking to be a major problem on college campuses. But the higher drinking age does little to prevent students from drinking, it merely changes where and how they drink. 

In closing, do I feel bad for any UVA fraternity members who feel unfairly maligned and stigmatized? I do. The vast majority of them have done nothing wrong, and do not deserve to face any permanent consequences. Nonetheless, the temporary suspension of Greek life seems prudent to allow for an investigation and a university wide conversation about how to best combat sexual assault. 

Regardless of whether one believes Jackie's account or not, investigating the prevalence of sexual assault at fraternity parties cannot hurt any innocent party, and indeed, might do a great deal of good. 

Although I do not support a permanent fraternity ban, if even one UVA student avoids the horrible trauma of sexual assault because the temporary ban gives the community time to implement changes, then the ban is worth whatever unfairness it involves.