Stories of rape again fill the news. Rolling Stone featured an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about University of Virginia’s responses to rape at a fraternity party. The resurrected history of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults on women has dominated headlines. Of course, October also had campus rape news: Columbia University student Emma Sulkewicz’ “Carry that Weight Project” brought national attention to colleges’ woefully inadequate responses to sexual assault. Come to think of it: in 2013 we heard plenty about disbelieving judges and police reticence to take student rape seriously. 2012? Let’s just call it the year of Republicans and Rape and move on.
Yet none of these stories were simply reports of criminal acts: they all focused on the (un)believability of women’s words. As I’ve detailed about the 18th century in Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, women’s claims of rape are generally implausible unless people in positions of power saw their experiences fitting their preconceived image of “real rape.”
Fast forward to 2014: A public statement by University of Virginia President, Teresa Sullivan, epitomizes the problematic way sexual assaults are described. Sullivan wrote her statement “in response to a Rolling Stone magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia.” The article had described a stomach-turning gang rape at a fraternity party. Sullivan, however, summarizes the incident as “an alleged sexual assault of a female student at a fraternity house in September 2012, including many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials.” She spends the rest of the statement emphasizing the many initiatives UVA has undertaken, and ends by praising the “dedicated Student Affairs staff” who address “issues related to sexual misconduct.”
Where to start. First: Sullivan seems to take offense to the bad press for UVA, not to the fact that numerous UVA women have been grievously harmed. Second, Sullivan reduces the central attack in the story to “alleged,” and — Bonus! — blames the victim for not properly reporting the incident. By the end of the statement, readers have been assured of UVA’s accomplishments, and a multi-men, multi-hour rape with penises and a beer bottle has been transformed into (whose?) “sexual misconduct.” Wow. Slow hand clap indeed.
I’m not unsympathetic to the pressures a university president faces in responding to this kind of negative press. I imagine an army of lawyers anxiously looking over her shoulder as she writes, yelling, “Title IX! Donors! Clery Stats!” But Sullivan did not randomly diffuse the impact of the negative press; she did it by denying the legitimacy, seriousness, and veracity of her students. And she did it without an ounce of displayed sympathy or empathy (for the student, that is; she seems to have plenty for her institution).
You want to see how such a statement could have and should have been made? When President of Amherst and feminist scholar, Biddy Martin, faced a similar situation in 2012, she also made a public statement. It began like Sullivan’s: “I write in response to the recent news,” but that is pretty much the only similarity between them. Instead of highlighting Amherst as the victim in lieu of the woman who had been raped and mistreated by the college, Martin states unequivocally: “A student’s first-person account in this week’s Amherst Student is horrifying — her rape, her painful efforts to deal with it on her own, and her subsequent experiences when she sought help on the campus.” There is no mention of the “alleged” incident. There are words like horrifying and painful. In short, Martin does not protect her institution at the expense of the young women who have already been abused on its premises. Or to put it another way: she takes the woman at her word.
Until, as Rolling Stone journalist Erderly aptly writes, we reject the triumvirate of “dismissal, downgrading and doubt” of a woman’s statement of her experiences, we’ll keep having these offensive conversations about rape. I suspect we continue along these same tired paths because it lets us maintain the fiction that rape is not endemic. As long as we see sexual coercion as an aberration only committed by deranged individuals, women’s accusations about sexual coercion in the context of daily life will be unbelievable. And Heathcliff Huxtable can stay uncomplicatedly beloved. As long as we believe that men who rape are monstrous, non-monstrous men will not be seen as rapists.
Whether it is college men planning on having sex without concern for consent during an alcohol-soaked fraternity party, or the powerful professional: sexual coercion with impunity is based on the distrust of the less powerful. Largely, that victimization falls on women, but sexual vulnerability causes untold misery for other marginalized groups too: LGBT people, people of color, and people in precarious economic situations all disproportionately risk sexual exploitation by the more powerful.
The CDC estimates that 20% of women will be raped in their lifetime, and 44% will experience some form of sexual violence. Spend a second with those numbers. They mean that it is impossible for all of us not to know — and not to be – these women. Faced with that reality, our continued disbelief in women’s lived experiences is utterly indefensible.
Decades of evidence suggest that University of Virginia — and far too many other colleges — have implicitly collaborated with the culture of pervasive sexual violence directed largely at the women enrolled on their campuses. That’s why The Onion could satirize Bill Cosby’s sexual predation by referring to college administrators’ seeming endless disbelief of rape victims. The Onion’s headline about the university where Cosby serves as a Trustee proclaimed, “Temple University Receives Anonymous Donation to Build Center For Discrediting Rape.” It’s funny, because it’s true. But then again: it is so true, it really isn’t funny.
As Amherst College’s 2013 report on campus sexual violence summarizes: “There is a deep residue of misery and unresolved trauma — sometimes made worse by official disregard — that has surrounded this issue for generations, that has damaged the lives of real individuals, and that cannot simply be wished away or retrospectively made right.” Yes. That. Until leaders like UVA President Sullivan focus their concern on the damage done by their institutions, all the wishes in the world won’t result in change. Let’s instead begin to engage with the painful reality that many would rather ignore women’s words than address the underpinnings of our rape culture.
Postscript: On Saturday, November 22, Sullivan produced a new statement. While expressing some concern for the appalling “wrongs described in Rolling Stone,” the majority of her statement seems stuck in the same problematic mindset. She focuses on the harm to UVA, and undermines women’s words again by instructing “individuals in our community who know what happened that night…to come forward to the police to report the facts,” [her emphasis] because “only you can shed light on the truth.” Apparently the victimized woman’s statements still leave the “truth” shrouded in darkness. Moreover, Sullivan resists acknowledging the many rapes her campus has allowed to happen: she states that we must “demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen,” not that they never happen again.
My take? Too little, too late, too much unacknowledged disrespect toward women (I won’t even get into her questionable choice of quoting Thomas Jefferson on this topic). Maybe Sullivan can call Biddy Martin for advice. Or see if Bill Cosby wants to make a donation.