I Don’t (Have to) Love it Here
by Monica Mohapatra
I have spent a lot of today being angry. Sad too, but mostly angry. Like many others, I was completely preoccupied by the Rolling Stone article, but not for many of the reasons I saw riddled among the explosion of Facebook posts. Yes, I too stand with the survivors, as with any other day. I too feel sad for the women who underwent the horrors listed in that article, for the men who were not mentioned, but suffer nonetheless. I too feel horrified and disgusted and helpless and stuck. But I do not feel surprised.
A lot of the reactions I saw, both from friends and strangers (as Facebook is) involved a statement of disgust, followed by a declaration of love for this university and for the “good people” doing good work here. Great. I’m going to say it right now: I do not love this university. I do not think the Rotunda is a national treasure, I am not enthralled by the majestic and oppressive history of TJ’s village, I do not love UVA in the fall, nor the men spitting at me from a car on Preston after-dark, and I do not love my experience here as a queer woman of color. I’m not suggesting I haven’t had the privilege of meeting incredible people, gaining lifelong friends, or learning wonderful things here, but that those things have only warmed to the people who allowed them to happen, not to UVA itself. My opinion is of course, only mine, and perhaps not shared by the majority of people, but the majority is essentially the problem. I also think there are several people who may share my feelings, and I have certainly heard it said many times, but no one wants to shout foul in a crowd of people so utterly absorbed.
But this is not an attack on people who love the University. Like Sabrina Erdely’s article, this is about UVA. Because UVA is a juggernaut. It’s a hulking bastion of an institution that is so completely structured around its institutional prestige and status that we literally capitalize the ‘U’ in university. Everything is systematic here: we have elite CIOs, elite events, elite scholarships. Rubbing elbows with the administration is a sign of status and becoming the president of your ‘pretty influential’ CIO is a step to becoming the next Pat Lampkin. I am angry with those who are so deeply involved with the university and yet persist in upholding its efforts to save face. Yes, UVA does some good things, and the article misrepresented student activism at UVA – especially when it comes to socioeconomic issues, which have been so dear to students in my four years. The Living Wage hunger strike, the campaign to bolster AccessUVA, the consistent and weekly dialogues on addressing socioeconomic diversity all point to the fact that student activism is well and alive at UVA, just not when it comes to sexual assault.
In her email, Theresa Sullivan set out all the things that have been done in the past year to combat sexual assault at UVA. I have read several articles on UVA’s sexual assault crisis this year, and all of them have cited the conference while some have cited #hoosgotyourback because these are the few tokens we have to offer. I am tired of the administration saying UVA is leading the charge on campus sexual assault when it is one of only twelve universities under compliance review, which is indeed not routine or standard. I am tired of misdirection, mishandling, of the farce that is student self-governance, and of being convenient bureaucratic answers to long-standing questions.
Recently, I spent some time attempting to do my own research into UVA’s sexual assault policies when I felt that I was underinformed about how it worked. What I received as a result was confusing and contradictory answers that did not explain the single-sanction policy and that cited convenient privacy laws where privacy was easily maintained even with the divulging of information. The lack of transparency was such a buffer that I eventually had to quit out of sheer confusion. I did, however, learn that the university website did not encourage you to report incidents to the police, listing only that in capital letters while the rest of the suggestions were listed normally. The same rhetoric was deployed by a university official at a talk on sexual assault prevention earlier in the semester. Since then, UVA has updated its website to suggest you go to the police. #Hoosgotyourback is a great program and good on everyone for emphasizing bystander-intervention policies, as well as for attempting to take a proactive approach to the situation. It is too little, but not too late.
On the article itself, I will not presume anything about the validity or lack thereof with Rolling Stone, as the piece could have been published in the New York Times and no one would have questioned its validity. I do think RS should have done better to make it shorter or seem shorter, because many people did not read till the end. There should have been a trigger warning. I also will not wonder about the girls mentioned in the article. I am appalled at some of what was written, because I am completely convinced that it was true. I know people who have been raped, I know people who found themselves in danger at a frat party, and I know that their cases were not handled well. I couldn’t agree with the decision to make the graphic details public, but most of the information was shockingly true. Nonetheless, the article was a mere vehicle in expanding this conversation. The article was nothing but a bottle opened.
No matter what Dean Groves lies about, UVA is under investigation for a reason and it’s a reason that rings true for many women. The thing is, it’s good to provided options and help survivors know that they will be supported in any choice, but there is a VERY REAL moral obligation on behalf of the administration to insure the possibility of violent gang rape exists for no one, let alone for 3, 6, 16, 38, people. I do not think they should force survivors to tell their stories, but if nothing else, I agree with the article’s point that not establishing a safe space in which it is possible to report things, to be public about assault, and not encouraging survivors to report the situation is a gross irresponsibility. If 38 cases are reported, I understand that the survivors may not want to report their case, but responsibility does not lie with them to do anything. The responsibility lies with our administration and with the student body to encourage a space where first-years are not so paranoid about their damn social status that they don’t report a violent gang rape. All of us are incriminate too, because we’ve allowed this to keep happening. Every time something terrible happens, we get outraged and tweet about our outrage, but how much have you done, how much have I done as an activist or a feminist other than writing this bitter article?
Because what happens when criminals do not get reported? They keep going. How many cases of sexual assault might have been prevented at UVA if the university was not so caught up with preserving its prestige, if it did not threaten students with expulsion for having the audacity to speak up about their experiences, if there was transparency in the process so that everyone knew they would be looked out for? How many people would have been left unharmed if reporting their experiences meant that they would see justice instead of a traumatizing and disappointing hearing where they relived every detail only to find that nothing would be done? We should be concerned with giving the survivors a megaphone as well as private space in which to talk with other survivors and deans, we should roll out new policies before we go under federal review!
Why is the main rhetoric not “don’t rape” but instead “move on”? Why did it take so long for us to get this information, and why did it take a Rolling Stone article to do it? Why don’t we get emails about immensely violent situations that are, most definitely, dangers to public safety? If we’re not going to encourage the survivors to speak up, why don’t we have some other process by which to know that rapists surround us? Yes, UVA is finally working on it, after a website listing all of its crimes has been published, after a memoir was written by a woman for whom it took twenty years to receive justice. But I do not want the love of the university and what it has given you to cloud your judgment of the situation. Forget Rolling Stone, forget the story, forget everything but still you will not be able to forget that you know, I know, and somebody out there definitely has experience rape at UVA and never received closure. Don’t concentrate on the bureaucracy, or on the fact that your love of this college may somehow be tarnished if you choose to criticize it for its largely oppressive principles.
Our president’s email also attempted to victim-blame the girl in the article for not providing all the information to UVA, contradicting what they themselves have said in that no survivor is compelled to share everything and that the extent of information does not correlate to how much help you will receive. I can’t imagine what else could have been necessary after saying a rape had happened for the university to finally report it to the police. I can’t imagine how anyone could have the gall to suggest all of ‘Jackie’s assailants had graduated. There are blatant institution-supplied lies that, even with journalistic manipulation, could not have simply been invented. Sexual assault is NOT handled well at UVA, and it’s completely ridiculous for anyone to say that it has been or that years and years of institutionally perpetuated rape can be exonerated by the token offering of a conference and a campaign. I understand the bias on behalf of both people who love it here and who engage closely with the administration when they say that the article is disappointing or that it misrepresents the important work they’re doing – but it’s a bias.
Everything here reeks of institutional manipulation. Does that sound harsh? Good. There are people who reach to become the cream of the systematic crop, and there’s everybody else. People who have critique Erdely’s article have forgotten that her point was not to praise UVA, as we have become so accustomed to expecting, but to condemn it, to condemn an institution that did not serve its students well. Secret societies aren’t important, LCD screens aren’t, nor your involvement or your volunteering or however much champagne you drank at the gala last night. Everyone deserves to have a safe school and this is far from it. It wasn’t about comparisons to the Ivy League, or about the relative success of Take Back the Night, it was about this institution we uphold as place of honor and a community of trust. Why should I be proud of a place where I feel unsafe and where my friends are in danger? Why should I feel good about logs that list sexual assault as a “suspicious circumstance” and where someone can be found guilty of rape only to receive a yearlong suspension? Those are not things I learned in the article, but through the last four years.
I suppose the right thing to do here would be to suggest policy changes or activist actions that we could all take to change things. There are many people who will be doing this, administration and students alike. I’m certainly not informed about organizing tactics and institutional policy enough to make recommendations, nor do I think I have all of the information I need. I do know, however, that we need sustained and communal action on par with the activism displayed with socioeconomic issues in order to address our crisis. I also don’t think that the sexual assault crisis should be isolated from discussions on being LGBTQ at UVA, or being a person of color, or having a lower socioeconomic status because these are all part of a minority experience that too face institutional gridlock. Maybe this time we won’t leave it to mass individualism and forget to care about the thousands of other people we share this space with. Maybe we’ll get angry enough to spur real action, and it won’t fizzle out two weeks later, and if for nothing else than that, we should thank Rolling Stone.
So I am not in love with this university, and I never will be. If you love it here, and you let that get in the way of seeing what is actually problematic, then you are no better than the administration. But more than that, it is completely about and completely not about the survivors. It is about them and their long and difficult path to healing, and more importantly, it is about an entirely different entity: their rapists. The rapist. The mysterious shadow figure we all know but don’t know. Last week I had to walk by someone I knew – I knew – had done terrible things, but I couldn’t say anything. I was completely helpless. He will keep going here, keep joining elite societies, keep debating and touring and interviewing and acting, but someone has lost everything because of him. If she cannot love this university, and if this university cannot love her, how can I love it?