26 November, 2014

The honors of honor {addended}

I took this post offline for a bit while I thought about whether to rewrite it. If you didn't read it the first time, you might want to skip down a bit and then come back to this.

I'm sure many people saw Rolling Stone's "A Note to Our Readers" or read accounts of it. If you think you have a strong opinion, but haven't seen the actual "Note", I would really encourage you to go back and reading it carefully, because it doesn't say what a lot of the newspapers to pick up the story suggest it says.

Yes, I think the report and the magazine did everyone involved in the story a grave disservice by not investigating more thoroughly. Yes, I agree with journalists who said, If you were reporting on a burglary, would you be obligated to interview the suspected burglar? Well, yes...and no... If the lack of investigation into the crime, the affiliations of the suspect, etc. were part of the story, you might very well. Moreover, if there was a really good chance that people involved were going to deny the events and try to smear the victim, thoroughly investigating the likely response, including the evidence supporting or refuting the denial and counter-accusations, would be in everyone's best interests.

Because what is one of the basic practices of detectives everywhere? Interview everyone involved before they have a chance to talk to each other, share stories, figure out what's going on, right? It seems like Jackie's friends and the involved fraternity would have been much less likely to be able to cover it up if they had been interviewed before the story appeared and prompted such an outcry. Given what we know about how rape survivors are treated, I don't think it's wrong to apply a different standard for reporting...I think it's only fair to the survivor, to give her the best possible chance of having her story taken seriously.

For all those who think they know now that "Jackie" lied, please go back and read Rolling Stone's note. I'm not going to argue that she was completely honest - I'm just going to ask you to justify:
1) Why you are willing to accept the fraternity's statement (with no more corroborating evidence that the victim could provide) that there was no party that weekend and that no one matching the description of the victim's date was a fraternity brother? (Another source claimed that the fraternity's records of events didn't go back far enough to confirm or deny.)
2) Why you aren't willing to consider that the victim might have gotten details wrong and still have been assaulted? (For instance, she reported hearing her attackers make statements that suggested to her that the attack was part of an initiation rite; fraternity rush is mainly a spring event, although several fraternities and sororities participate in a more low-key fall rush. According to another anonymous friend, she allegedly changed the number of attackers from five to seven.)

Finally, several sources have suggested that Jackie's friends didn't corroborate her story. Actually, according to the Rolling Stone note, one of the friends who was present on the night of attack says that Jackie told him she was forced to give oral sex to a group of men. I agree that discrepancies warrant better investigation (criminal and investigative reporting). But I'd also ask: Isn't that enough?

Many people were quick to question how someone who sustained such a severe assault could walk away with minimal injuries. I wondered, as a physician, but I also didn't completely care, if I'm being honest. For me, the brutality of the crime was the "hook" to get people to care, because people are stunningly indifferent to the idea that nonviolent nonconsensual sex is a crime. I'm not surprised that a victim might learn to exaggerate the violence to get the response any sexual assault deserves.

Last thought: The quality of reporting on the "retraction" has been just as poor as the original reporting. The Washington Post used the headline "Key elements of Rolling Stone's UVA gang rape allegations in doubt", even though the most key element, the failure of the University to investigate rapes, period, is not in doubt at all.

My original post:
This week, we had to rearrange various rooms while new hardwood floors were installed. My dad had a framed copy of the James Hay poem The Honor Men that I have been meaning to hang in our study/library. It ends with the line, "I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia."

I'm assuming that many of you know where this is going. For those who don't, you should probably start here, with the Rolling Stone article, "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and a Struggle for Justice at UVA."

The short version is that it tells the story of a UVA undergraduate who was gang-raped at a fraternity party by seven men, none of whom ever faced charges or even administrative justice.

Then I would recommend you read this from the Cavalier Daily.

Let me say first: A lot of people - including UVA's Board of Visitors and several deans - have been busy expressed their outrage, their disappointment, their disgust. For some of them, it might be genuine. But many more people were not shocked, because we've known since sexual assault on university campuses started getting more attention last year, that eventually the media spotlight would fall on UVA. And we knew we weren't any different than anyone else. 

Secondly: Until I hear two people speak up, I am wholly unconvinced that anything will change. Who are those two people? 

(1) A dean or administrator, any dean or administrator, who is willing to acknowledge that people in the administration knew sexual assault was under-addressed and under-disciplined and is willing to speak honestly about why that is...protecting the University's image, unwillingness to restrain the traditional Greek culture that turns out alumni with deep loyalty and deeper pockets, a continued belief that women actually make out rape claims when they regret sleeping with someone or that "boys will be boys" and those poor young men's lives shouldn't be ruined because everyone got a little drunk...? 

I'm being sarcastic, of course, but I sincerely believe that there are faculty, administrators, parents, students and alumni out there who believe those last two things to be true. I knew, secondhand, that the administration was light on sexual assault claims when I was a student, from a variety of sources. Therefore, I conclude that every administrator can't be "shocked and disappointed" by the reports.

Fact check: "Conventional scholarly wisdom" estimates that about 2% of rape claims are false, and the majority of these fall into two categories - mentally ill women who fabricate claims, sometimes involving men they've never met or never had a sexual relationship with, and women who were raped but mis-identify their attackers. Why do so many people believe that "bad sex" or "morning-after regrets" would lead to women wanting to be humiliated and dragged through the muck of sexual assault investigations? Is our cultural need to believe that women shouldn't like sex that powerful? 

(2) A former student/alumnus who was a perpetrator or an enabler of a sexual assault and is willing to not just take responsibility but talk about the culture that leads widespread violence against women.

I feel like I should give a shout-out to my college friends, roommates and even my ex-boyfriend. Is there a non-awkward way to say, Hey, I know we're not close now, but thanks for not caring more about your popularity and social status than my physical and mental well being? Maybe a Hallmark card... Sorry I always left my hair in the shower drain ... Thanks for never using me as rapist bait to score easy alcohol!

Speaking as someone who went on to become a pediatrician -- the survivor's friends unwillingness to even seek medical help for her was probably one of the most appalling parts of the story for me. People can get septic and die from shock after a violent rape. I am suddenly profoundly grateful that I was never a part of the subculture described in that article, that the first people I met and connected with as a 16-year-old in a new place 500 miles from home (because, yes, I was super-young and far away, so I literally knew no one else when I arrived and could have conceivably been that much more vulnerable) were of a totally different ilk that the first-years depicted in the article. None of my friends rushed fraternities or sororities - or as far as I know, even considered rushing - and I can count the number of frat parties I went to on one hand. 

Which leads me to my final points: UVA isn't unique. Perhaps it's a little worse because of the closer ties to Southern tradition than Yale or Harvard; perhaps it's a bit better than Florida State (at least the football team isn't buying off the police department!). But I'll critique any journalist who argues that something exceptional has been happening in Charlottesville. First of all, fewer than one-third of Virginia students belong to a fraternity or sorority; as my experience attests, there is a huge social and extracurricular scene that is separate from Greek life and sometimes separate from heavy drinking and partying.

Secondly, sexual assault and violence against women is a national problem. Really, it's an international problem, but that's more than I can write about here. Until the "silent majority" (addressed in the Cav Daily piece above) decides that that (1) sexual assault is always a crime - period - that always warrants punishment and (2) the odds of women "just making it up" are very, very low, we aren't going to make much progress. Changing a culture is hard but it's not impossible. 

The Honor Men

The University of Virginia writes her highest degree on the souls of her sons.

The parchment page of scholarship – the colored ribbon of a society – the jeweled emblem of a fraternity – the orange symbol of athletic prowess – all these, a year hence, will be at the best mementos of happy hours – like the withered flower a woman presses between the pages of a book for sentiment’s sake.

If you live a long, long time, and hold honesty of conscience above honesty of purse; 
And turn aside without ostentation to aid the weak; 
And treasure ideals more than raw ambition; 
And track no man to his undeserved hurt; and pursue no woman to her tears; 
And love the beauty of noble music and mist-veiled mountains and blossoming valleys and great monuments -

If you live a long time and, keeping the faith in all these things hour by hour, still see that the sun gilds your path with real gold and that the moon floats in dream silver;


Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness:

“I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia.”

by James Hay, Jr.
Editor in Chief, Corks & Curls, 1903