by James A. Bacon
Let me make this clear up front. I have zero interest in defending the behavior that goes on at University of Virginia fraternities. I never joined a fraternity when I attended UVa back in the early 1970s. Indeed, it only took two frat parties before I reached the conclusion that getting wasted and puking in the gutter was not my idea of entertainment. I never set foot back in a frat house after that. As time passed, my contempt for the frat house culture only grew stronger. I still have vivid memories of moronic frat boys who intermittently attended a class on West Indian history, did none of the reading and contributed nothing to the discussion. They’d heard that the class was a “gut,” and they successfully persuaded the soft-hearted professor not to flunk them on the grounds that they wouldn’t graduate if he did. My contempt for them was boundless. How dare they occupy slots at UVa when so many others with a genuine desire to learn were denied admittance?
So, when it comes to dissecting events at UVa in the wake of Rolling Stone‘s gang-rape story, I feel akin to a Jewish member of the American Civil Liberties Union defending the right of Nazis to march in public parades. Just as the Jewish ACLU lawyer isn’t defending Nazis, he’s defending free speech, I’m not defending fraternities, I’m defending student associations against the indiscriminate over-reaction of the UVa administration.
Not only has UVa President Teresa Sullivan canceled all fraternity and sorority events until the Spring semester, she has amped up her rhetoric. “U.Va. is too good a place to allow this evil to reside,” she said Monday, outlining steps she is taking to overhaul the way the university deals with sexual assault. So, now we’re pitching this as a battle of good versus evil — no shades of gray allowed. Meanwhile, state legislators are stumbling over themselves to introduce legislation to require university authorities across the state to report alleged sexual assaults to police and prosecutors.
One thing we all can agree upon is that the Rolling Stone allegations of a gang rape of a first-year University woman at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity were absolutely horrifying and, if true, that the alleged rapists deserve to spend a long time in jail. The horror of the crime, compounded by the failure of the victim, her friends or university authorities to report the crime, have fueled the furor. What few here in Virginia have yet done, however, is to ask if the allegations are true.
If there is one thing we should have learned from recent news frenzies, it’s that the initial reports are horrifying… and almost always incomplete. The Duke lacrosse team rape. The Trayvon Martin shooting. The Michael Brown shooting. We have fallen into a depressing pattern. An event occurs. First reports confirm a prevailing narrative (usually revolving around racism or sexism, or both). Passions flare, views harden. Facts leak out contradicting the narrative, either in whole or in part. But people dig into their positions and no one changes their mind. It turns out that the Duke lacrosse team did not rape the stripper, and the circumstances surrounding the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were far more complicated than first billed and fraught with uncertainties lending themselves to multiple interpretations.
Could that be the case with the UVa gang rape? Hopefully, now that the case has been turned over to the Charlottesville police for investigation, we’ll get a more authoritative account of what happened at the Phi Kappa Psi frat house than what we’ve read in Rolling Stone. That account may turn out in the end to be 100% accurate. But it’s far from authoritative, and university authorities should not assume that it reflects the full unvarnished truth without at least checking it out first.
Why do I say the Rolling Stone article is less than authoritative? Because the narrative of the rape itself relies upon the account of one person, the victim. The reporter was unable to confirm her version of the story with the three friends whom she told about the rape later that evening. Needless to say, the reporter didn’t talk to any of the alleged rapists or even the instigator, a student identified as “Drew.” And, of course, UVa authorities refused to discuss the case on the grounds of protecting privacy.
Meanwhile, there are details within the story that call out for explanation or clarification. The room where the rape allegedly occurred was described as “pitch black.” The victim, identified as Jackie, “detected movement” in the room and “felt someone bump into her.” Yet toward the end of her three-hour ordeal, she was able to “recognize” one of her assailants as a classmate in an anthropology class. Maybe there’s a logical explanation for the seeming contradiction — maybe her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Or maybe it’s a flawed narrative. We don’t know. It would help to find out.
Similarly Jackie described falling backward onto a low glass table and shattering the glass as the first rapist assaulted her. “Sharp shards” dug into her back. Multiple rapes ensued. Her body was bleeding, her dress “splattered with blood.” After she fled the fraternity house, one of the three friends thought the injuries looked severe enough to take her to the hospital. Yet she never went — her friends talked her out of it. These, at least, are details of the narrative can be factually checked. Police can interview the friends for corroborating testimony. They can interview her roommate to see if she noticed the injuries or the bloody dress. They can check Jackie’s body for scars from untreated cuts.
The bottom line here is to gather some facts before jumping to conclusions. If the facts support the rape allegations, then let’s proceed full steam ahead to indict the rapists and send them to jail for a very long time. If they don’t, let’s everybody calm down, please.
Ascertaining the facts on the gang rape won’t settle the broader issue of the “culture of rape” at UVa. Clearly, something bad is going on. As W. Bradford Wilcox, a UVa sociologist and self-described conservative writes in National Review, seven of the 103 female students in his classes reported in an anonymous survey that they had been “forced into a sexual act against [their] will,” and an additional 33 reported that a “UVA friend” has experienced such a violation. Seven of 103, less than 7%, is a far cry from the commonly touted figure of 20%, but it’s still way too high.
As I have noted before, however, most of these incidents occur in the context of the drunken college hook-up culture in which students drink themselves silly and engage in high-risk behavior. Sometimes, men cross the line of consent. Such behavior needs to stop. While clearly there is a problem that needs to be fixed, the UVa administration is going overboard by shutting down all fraternity and sorority events until someone figures out what needs to be done. Is it justified to punish the innocent along with the guilty? Or do we just suppose that all Greek organizations are guilty, even the sororities? Writes Wilcox:
On most college campuses, some fraternities have a reputation for misogyny and bad behavior. Plugged-in students and administrators usually know which fraternities treat women badly. These fraternities should be identified and reformed or shut down.
I agree. There well may be fraternity houses where the sins are so egregious that they deserve to be shut down entirely. But we don’t know that right now. All we have are vague charges leveled against fraternities generally and one single horrifying charge leveled against Phi Kappa Psi. Shutting down all Greek social events strikes me as one of blind, unthinking panic. The UVa administration and board are reacting on the basis of emotion, not facts. And that can lead to no good.