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Writing about Campus Rape

posted: 12.2.14 by Steve Bernhardt

I am having a hard time not thinking about the disturbing Rolling Stone exposé on the rape culture at the University of Virginia. If you have not read it, stop right now, follow that link, and think about your campus culture.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely doggedly pursues a story focused on the experience of a first-year woman student, Jackie, who was brutally gang raped at a fraternity house party just after she arrived on campus. And no, she was not drunk or passed out, but keenly aware of what was happening to her by nine men in a pitch-black room. It’s the story of her life unravelling as she experiences and re-experiences the trauma of the event. It reveals her subsequent, inadequate, attempts to come to terms with her rape. The story reveals the inadequacy of the student’s social support networks and of the university’s student support services. It’s also the story of an institution that is conditioned to do more to protect its reputation than to serve its students. The voices of other victims corroborate Jackie’s story.

The story is an exploration, or exposé, of a brutal and largely hidden side of campus life. The campus system is set up in such a way that legal process is subverted. Criminal behavior is excused by redirecting the victim from the criminal justice system toward a campus judiciary system that suppresses victims’ rights, dissuades victims from filing suit, and quietly allows horrific abuse to continue. It took the public embarrassment of the Rolling Stone story to get UVA to take action, to get the police involved, and to suspend fraternities for at least the short period of investigation. The story demonstrates the power of careful research and reporting. And it is also the story of the student, Jackie, and many more like her, finding the courage to speak out about a campus problem.

I am trying to figure out now how to use these issues as a focus for a series of assignments for my spring introcomp course. I am hoping students can connect from one of many angles: law and justice, individual and institutional ethics, individual vs. group behavior, the experience and aftermath of trauma, cultural norms and institutional policies. My students should be able to feel the urgency of the story, since campus predators often target first-year women who may be naïve to the dangers of campus culture, inexperienced with college drinking scenes, likely to feel powerless, and predisposed to withdraw rather than challenge the system. Perhaps an introcomp class can be a place to begin researching, speaking, and writing about important campus problems?

The focus on coercive sex has particular resonance on our campus at the University of Delaware, as a case played out this term involving a popular sociology professor accused of preying on a female undergraduate, pressuring her to have sex in his office. A student reporter picked up the story and did an excellent job of reporting the student’s experience and frustration with the process of seeking redress. The victim connected with a professor who helped her work through her feelings and take appropriate action. A series of stories, editorials, vigils, and letters to the student newspaper kept the story alive and in focus. Student voices, written and spoken, were the primary forces triggering a community response.

I hope that my students will be able relate to these issues and that writing about such situations will give them some ideas about individual agency and the power to change university culture. I have to figure out the best ways to approach the assignments. If one in five undergraduates are the target of some form of sexual predation on campus (a figure commonly cited, including in the Rolling Stone piece), I am very likely to have men and women in my class who have either experienced or who know about such cases. It’s the sort of assignment that raises issues that are difficult to deal with, both emotionally and legally.

I hope to get various campus players involved in classroom interviews, perhaps our Title IX officer, or the faculty member who supported the student (who is also a scholar who studies gender and harassment issues), or someone from our Women’s Caucus. One aspect I would like to stress is that there are different perspectives on any complex social issue, depending on who we are, where we work, what groups we belong to, and so on. In my introcomp classes, we talk a lot about “angle of vision” or “bias” or “positioning” or “stakeholders” with regard to discourse. The rape case at UVA raises such issues explicitly.

If you are thinking about these same issues, I’d welcome your ideas on how to approach such a difficult but important topic. If you would like to link classes in a shared experience, I’d certainly be open to that, too.

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Categories: Campus Issues, Steve Bernhardt
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