by James A. Bacon
I feel so much safer now! Well, I would if I were a 20-year-old female student at the University of Virginia. Acting under a national media spotlight in wake of allegations of gang rape at a university fraternity, the University of Virginia Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution yesterday declaring itself to be unalterably opposed to rape. More specifically, the board approved “a zero-tolerance stance on sexual assault,” according to media reports.
Wow, what a profile in courage!
The details of the zero-tolerance stance have yet to be worked out, however. And that is the problem. The devil is in the details. The question that I did not see anyone address in the media accounts I read (Daily Progress, Times-Dispatch) is fundamental: In the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture of the contemporary American campus, what constitutes rape? Of course it’s rape when a first-year woman is lured into an upstairs fraternity-house bedroom and is sexually assaulted by seven men. Any imbecile can see that. Of course it’s rape when a young man slips a woman a date-rape drug and proceeds to have sex with her while she’s senseless. It takes no depth of moral conviction to denounce such an act.
The problem is that a large number, if not a majority, of alleged sexual assaults occur in ambiguous circumstances in a cultural environment pervaded by alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity. Typically, there is no violence involved. Sometimes the rape victim doesn’t even decide she’s been raped until the day after. Usually, it’s a he-said, she-said situation in which the memories of both parties are clouded by alcohol. Sorting out guilt and innocence in those circumstances can be exceedingly difficult.
Although the board failed to grapple with any of these essential issues, trustees did boldly consent to several anti-rape measures that will have no impact whatsoever upon the problem. “Lighting will be upgraded around the campus, use of surveillance cameras will be expanded, and a new police substation will be established at the Corner, a popular gathering spot for students,” reports the Times-Dispatch.
Those measures might prevent incidents in which UVa women walking down the street are jumped by armed assailants. But the university is not experiencing that kind of rape epidemic. The number of rapes by unknown men at gunpoint is tiny. The rape epidemic is occurring in fraternity houses and college dormitories.
But never fear! President Teresa Sullivan also plans to institute “training for faculty and students to intercede when they see a problem” and to increase oversight of the fraternity system. This, too, is laughable. I feel safe in saying that (a) a negligible number of rapes occur in the presence to university faculty, and (b) when unwanted sexual intimacy occurs in the presence of students, the witnesses are likely too intoxicated or too distracted by their own sexual designs to apply the fine points of sensitivity training to friends groping one another on the sofa across the room.
As for fraternity oversight, the administration’s most notable response at this point consists of shutting down social events by all fraternities and sororities, even though only one institution was implicated in the gang rape. The received wisdom is that the culture of fraternities and sororities is part of the problem — which, in fact, it probably is. Trust me, I am no defender of fraternities. I never joined one when I attended UVa. But I have seen no evidence that all fraternities and sororities are equally debauched in their behavior. An indiscriminate shut-down of all Greek societies in the absence of evidence of wrong-doing at specific houses smacks of hysterical over-reaction that, far from gaining buy-in and cooperation from the institutions involved, will serve only to alienate them.
There was some recognition in the board meeting that binge drinking is part of the problem. “Excessive drinking is the fuel,” said L.D. Britt. “It was the fuel when I was here back in 1968, and it’s the fuel now.” Likewise, Sullivan singled out the culture of drinking. “We need to wipe out the notion that the college experience is incomplete without drinking.”
But there was nothing resembling a consensus on how to address the problem. Should the university and the City of Charlottesville crack down on student drinking, imposing a neo-prohibitionist regime? Should authorities embrace the opposite strategy of making alcohol more readily available students so they don’t have to go to fraternity parties to obtain it? No one has a clue.
One other issue I didn’t see discussed was how the university responds to rape allegations. One of the more horrifying charges in the Rolling Stone article that started this brouhaha was that the rape victim’s friends and the university administration swept the problem under the rug. Another fundamental question: Why wasn’t the case turned over immediately to Charlottesville police for investigation? Rolling Stone asserts that the Sexual Misconduct Board wants to provide less traumatic options for rape victims than pursuing criminal charges. Is that — should that be — the University’s decision to make? Does the Board intend ever to discuss that issue?
In a university that expels students for violating the honor code — no lying, cheating or stealing — it is a travesty not to expel students for sexual assault. But what standard of proof of guilt — criminal, civil or some other standard — should apply? Is the university set up to administer such judicial proceedings and to handle the inevitable appeals? These questions are not easily answered — and it doesn’t appear that either the UVa administration or the Board of Trustees is even asking them. So far, I have seen little to indicate that the university is willing to tackle fundamental issues. I have a sinking feeling that none of this will end well.There are currently no comments highlighted.