I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012. I can’t help but grin when I reflect on my time in Charlottesville, remembering a vibrant academic atmosphere that included lasagna dinners at professors’ houses and debating with Senator Bob Barr while swilling bourbon in Room 7, West Lawn, with the Jefferson Society. And then there was the social environment, just as robust, which included “Friday Wineday” car rides over the rolling Blue Ridge hills to go “vineyard hopping,” streaking the lawn, date functions, and belting “God Bless the USA” while swaying atop tables at the Virginian on Thursday nights.
And did I mention Thomas Jefferson? Each day I walked past the Rotunda on my way to class or to grab some Bodo’s, I swelled with pride, gawking at the centuries-old architecture that was supposed to be Jefferson’s answer to the Pantheon. Nevermind those bricks were laid by slaves in the nineteenth century. In my recollection, there was a great deal of posturing at U.Va., but everyone had a sense that beneath the distinguished, prestigious exterior lay something more sinister.
And so I grapple with the publication of that damning Rolling Stone article, which only articulated a culture that everyone already knew permeated the community (albeit with a tone that I think unfairly castigated our sartorial choices). I loved U.Va. I consider myself fortunate to have been Edgar Allan Poe’s successor in the Jefferson Society, to have stood in the shadows of William Faulkner and to have sat in the same chair as Woodrow Wilson before he was president of the United States. I still love U.Va., a fact that is not swayed by another fact: I was also assaulted at U.Va., right on Thomas Jefferson’s lawn, when I was 19.
My nineteen-year-old self had a pretty poor gauge of the sociological context of sexual assault, the broader implications of sexual violence going unaddressed, or the socio-political environment that might prompt, say, a large-scale cover-up of sexual assault at a university to preserve the reputation of the institution and to ensure cash flow. In my assessment, the only person at fault was the perpetrator, whom I never confronted legally, who went on to assault at least one other girl, and who occasionally still emails me to ask what’s up. I didn’t even know that Title IX entitled me to a safe environment as an extension of my right to equal education.
That, I think, is the crux of the issue here: I believe that school administrators exploited the youth and naivety of their students to perpetuate rape culture. I’m incredulous at alumni purporting to be surprised that something so vile as a gang rape could occur at the University. In my close friend group alone, I know at least three other women who were assaulted. We all had nicknames for Frat Houses you did not want to frequent; women worked within their peer networks to educate other women on parties, places, and people to avoid in order to ensure each other’s safety. Our male friends participated, too.
It was one of the only courses of action available to us in an environment riddled with undercurrents misogyny. This misogyny did not take its form in a Mad Men-style caricature of 1950s-U.Va., where fraternity gentlemen reminded “ladies” that their place was in the home—though it’s worth noting that my beloved Jefferson Society was dragged kicking and screaming to admit its first female member, in 1972, and only then was the feat accomplished through a distortion of Robert’s Rules while most of the executive board was out of town—but instead, through subtler means. While men were congratulated for their sexual conquests, all my female friends were slut-shamed, unless, of course, they were “prudes.” Disproportionate scrutiny of women’s personal lives were used to discredit us when we ran for higher office in CIOs, and, as such, women were elected to run student groups at lower rates. And I speak from experience when I say that true hell was being one of a handful of women in a computer science or biochemistry class, even when women outnumbered men in the overall student population.
I bring up this encultured misogyny not to complain, and certainly not to shed any new insight on a phenomenon widely understood to be extant, but to offer context for a set of conditions that would be conducive to sexual violence.
It’s not a coincidence that all of the old money poured in from both sides of Mad Bowl¹. It was the rule, not the exception, that many accused rapists descended from long lines of Wahoo heritage in prominent southern families while their victims were first-generation U.Va. students. That was always the social order of things, and everyone tacitly understood this. Why does sexual violence seem to be endemic to elite schools? Because this old boy, conservative attitude, pervasive and entrenched in almost two centuries of history, is a mechanism by which which they become elite. And it should come as a surprise to no one.
Everyone knew this was happening.
So don’t for a second believe when Rector Keith Martin claims that “many of the details contained in the article had not previously been disclosed to University officials.” They knew, and they chose to protect their endowment rather than young women in the community—some as young as 16 or 17, by the way, which is how old I was when I came to grounds. Worse than the fact that it took an exposé in a pop culture magazine to provoke a more meaningful response from officials is the corollary that these officials’ responses is just a continuation of the common theme of covering their asses. It’s time they are held accountable, the now-besmirched reputation of U.Va. be damned.
1. Short for “Madison Bowl,” the playing field separating Rugby Road from Madison Lane, where most of the fraternity houses are situated.