Monday, November 24, 2014

Silence is Another Assailant: Thoughts on UVa

Last week Rolling Stone magazine published a long, heartbreaking story about an alleged gang-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity two years ago. I'm not going to rehash the story: I linked to it on my Facebook page, and it's available all over the internet. Since I couldn't get it out of my head this weekend, I spent some time reading other stories and comments about UVa and what looks like their pattern of concealing and thereby enabling sexual assault.

When the attack was over, the alleged victim, who was 18 and had only been on campus for a few weeks, asked some of her new college friends for help. According to the article they were primarily concerned that if she reported the rape it would be bad for her reputation and theirs. She later went to the Dean in charge of such matters, Nicole Eramo. The story gets a little complicated, but on Eramo's advice the police were never notified. The men involved were not charged. Nothing happened to them.

It would be lovely if this were an isolated incident, but according to stories easily found on the web, it's happened again and again. Thirty-eight incidents of "sexual misconduct" were channeled through Eramo's office last year. In only nine were the cases pursued to any extent; there were zero actual criminal charges.

Erasmo is quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that UVa has to keep allegations quiet, because parents wouldn't want to "send their daughters to the rape school." She's also seen in a video available online, filmed a year ago, as saying that rapists at UVa who confess ought to receive a suspension from the University instead of going to prison. Some alleged sexual violence victims say that UVa pushed them to not pursue criminal charges on the grounds that the rapists' lives shouldn't be ruined.

Let's try this: if a man doesn't want his life ruined by a prison sentence, he shouldn't rape anyone. If a school doesn't want a reputation as a "rape school," then they should work to reduce campus rapes to zero, not cover up those that have already happened.

If a woman is raped, her reputation should not be on the line. That of her rapist should be.

If a woman is raped, she should immediately go or be taken to the hospital, in case she requires medical attention. She should be treated by female staff members trained to do the work. If possible, DNA evidenced should be collected and appropriately held for potential future prosecution. (Please note: victims should not be forced to immediately press charges: in places with mandatory prosecution laws, victims delay necessary medical treatment and commit suicide at higher rates than in places without.)

If a friend says she has been raped, take her to the hospital. Stay with her, support her, listen to her. Understand the rape for the felony event that it is. Don't downplay it to yourself or the victim.

Why didn't the woman from UVa press charges? My guess is that she didn't know how much more she could bear to lose. She lost a lot the night she was raped, but she lost more the next morning, when people were more concerned about gossip than her physical well-being. She lost more when the university discounted her story--more later, when other students wondered why she hadn't yet gotten over it. She lost something at every step. I understand.

Why didn't she say anything? That's the wrong question.
Why weren't people listening?

My attacker told me that if I ever told anyone what he did to me I'd be taken into foster care and never see my parents or brother again. I was five years old and I believed him.

I was seven and a half, and the attacks were becoming unbearable. I told my best friend as we were walking home in knee-deep snow. Horrified, she called me a liar and ran home. For days I hoped she would tell her mother, whom I liked, but I guess she never did.

By fourth grade my attacker was gone from my life. I developed behavior problems in school. My parents switched me into a private school. No one asked me what was wrong.

I finally told my parents when I was sixteen. They believed me and loved me, but they also told me not to tell anyone else, ever, not even my brother. However, they told my high school principal, for reasons I've never understood.

The counselor I saw in high school, before asking me what had happened, told me my parents would forgive me for what I'd done.

My high school best friend, on hearing the story, looked me in the eye and said we could only stay friends if I never mentioned the subject again.

In college I went to a counselor reporting recurrent episodes of dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares. Without asking any questions he assured me that "sexual assault was not that big of a deal."

I got very very lucky. My high school boyfriend, skinny, anxious, and shy, turned out to be the most courageous, honest person I've ever known. He heard me; he saw me; he loved me. When I finally fell to pieces he picked all the pieces up and held them together until I could remake myself, whole.

Saying the truth, living your truth, has a marvelous freeing power. It took me a long time to discover this power; I pray that all abuse survivors find it. I've come to believe that silence is another assailant. If rape is something we must be hide, must be ashamed to have suffered, then we stay vulnerable, trapped by lies. Instead we must give our children words: rape is unacceptable. You can survive it. It was not your fault; the person who did it carries the blame. You've been attacked, you need care. The person who did it should suffer serious consequences. You probably will, too, but you can heal. He committed a crime. You did not. He should feel shame. You should not.

Tell our daughters the truth.
Tell our sons the truth.
Tell our colleges the truth.
Tell the world.
Everyone.