Something Rotten at the University of Virginia


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.

Lauren Simenauer


1.  Short for “Madison Bowl,” the playing field separating Rugby Road from Madison Lane, where most of the fraternity houses are situated.


12 responses to “Something Rotten at the University of Virginia

  1. This is very well written and expressed. I applaud you Lauren for speaking forward. I’m sorry you had to go through this, but sounds like you are taking the healing by the horns and marching forward. Real proud of you 🙂

  2. What a beautiful, thoughtful person you are. I’m a UVa mom and I hope that real change happens now that this is in the open.

  3. Thank you for blogging about the reality of the entrenched social order at U.Va. that keeps women of sexual assault and violence underground. I graduated in 1988, and you describe it extremely well. I, too, love U.Va. but there are many things that I would love to change. I think the Rolling Stone article is a blessing.

  4. There certainly is something rotten at the University of Virginia if this is the culture toward women. But I take exception to the idea that this is a “conservative” attitude. “Rape” “gang rape” “misogyny” are absolutely not conservative attitudes. In today’s American culture people who hear or read the word conservative tend to think of a kind of philosophy of government or a political platform. They don’t think of the old south. Some people do think of the word conservative as a pejorative but that is usually based on political bias and not fact.
    I want to appeal to you to reconsider the use of that word here. I consider myself a conservative in today’s American culture. I am a young man. I have two beautiful daughters and I love my wife and view her as my equal though we both have our different and sometimes superior abilities and roles. I am disgusted by the misogyny that is pervasive in American culture today in the forms of pornography and even mainstream entertainment on television that still continues to treat women as sex objects. But this is no “conservative attitude” in America. The idea of rape is a nightmare to a loving father. It is a nightmare to this loving conservative father. I don’t want my girls to ever think for a moment that they are only good enough to be sexually enjoyed by some perverted half wit man children. I tell them every day that they are beautiful inside and out even though they are still so young. And I think it is because of a conservative attitude that I do this.
    I can imagine that there are men today who may even hold positions of influence in our culture that call themselves conservatives and are actually misogynistic , acrid, pigs who know nothing about what conservative philosophy actually is, but, even in a posterior of influence, they are the exception and not the norm. Please reconsider if you will.
    I hope you recieved this comment with the goodwill that is intended.

  5. There is something rotten at UVA indeed. It is heartbreaking to hear of the culture toward women there.
    However, I take exception to the idea that these things stem from a “conservative attitude”.
    I am a young man and I consider myself a conservative in today’s American culture. I have two beautiful little girls. The idea of rape is a nightmare to me. I abhor it. I have never had a “conservative” friend or even read a piece of “conservative” writing that has ever even come near to misogyny in attitude.
    I love my wife and view her as my equal.
    I am certain there are people of influence who have claimed to be conservative who are acrid, mysogynistic pigs who know nothing of true conservatism. There are too many individuals who claim all kinds of titles to attempt to gain influence but this does not change the fact that conservatism has always been and always will be a philosophy that champions freedom and individuality and seeks to protect the governed from all forms of oppression. It is a term that embodies the idea of limiting government and thus avoiding the horrors of oppression.
    You may disagree, I expect you might but I will ask you anyway to reconsider the use of the term in this context.
    The old south was not driven by conservative principles despite how many people will attempt to claim the civil war was really about a limited federal government. The old south was driven by oppression and the gains that the powerful few could yield from the helpless many. That is not conservatism. That is evil. That is fallen human nature.
    I hope you receive this comment with the good will with which I intend. I sincerely appreciate you calling attention to the terrible treatment of women at UVA. I only hope that the folks in charge and pushing for change and alumni alike will see through any kind of catch words or political buzz words and get to the true root of the issue and therein begin to effect real and lasting transformation. Conservatism may be just the philosophy that is needed in that campus.
    Thanks for your time,

  6. . Thank you for speaking up. This kind of behavior has been tolerated and condoned (along with the alcohol abuse) for way too long, not exclusively UVa, but colleges and universities throughout the country.

  7. “Everyone knew this was happening.”

    Please do not paint everyone who works are the Univeristy with one, broad brush. My conversations with students are almost exclusively academic in nature. The non-academic conversations tend to be about the next performance or the new place on the Corner.

    We are horrified. We want change as well.

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