The Rusty Taste of Shame After Campus Rape

The new issue of Ms. magazine is “Blowing the Whistle on Campus Rape“—the title of the cover story by Occidental College professors Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks. Here, a professor at the University of Oregon joins the chorus of activists breaking the silence on sexual assaults—which 1 in 5 women students will experience in their time on campus.

In 2011, Amherst College student Angie Epifano was raped by another student. Later, Epifano wrote, “Silence has the rusty taste of shame.”

Andrea Pino, raped at the University of North Carolina, “told no one my story, because after hearing dozens of stories I had yet to meet a person [who] was believed and … given justice.”

Around the country, students are challenging the silence around sexual assault that has long held sway on college campuses, refusing to back down even in the face of institutional retaliation and harassment. Faculty members, such as Occidental College’s Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks and Amherst president Biddy Martin, have also broken these silences, standing up for the rights of students to study, live and work on campuses that are safe and where students can expect justice.

The Rusty Taste of Shame After Campus Rape
(howlmontreal / Flickr)

Faculty members have important perspectives on institutionalized sexual violence. We usually stay at institutions longer than students and we are often aware of those institutions’ secrets. Some of us have interdisciplinary networks that extend beyond departments or programs that can allow us to see things—to put together parts of puzzles—in ways that students and other faculty members cannot. Most importantly, we have experiences of multiple institutions and can recognize patterns and problems that those with less experience might miss.

What we see has long been troubling. Sexual violence has been part of my own experience in institutions of higher education from the very beginning.

As a not particularly politicized, first-generation college student, I went to Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. I quickly learned that male students from Dartmouth and other universities regarded Mt. Holyoke as a hunting ground for sexual conquests. One of my friends,  a bright young scientist whose laughter rang through the halls of our dorm the first few weeks of my freshman year, was raped at Dartmouth that fall semester. Her rapist punched her in the head so hard the blow detached her retina. She came back for part of the spring semester, but was sick and obviously distressed. She didn’t return after summer vacation.

The following year, my roommate and I woke to find a woman from our dorm wandering outside, dazed, half-naked and shivering in the chill New England spring. Some of the senior women took her to the health center. I never saw her again. What I didn’t understand then was that the disappearance of these women was a longstanding institutional pattern. Survivors make institutions uncomfortable: They illustrate patterns of violence and abuse; they seek to make visible what institutions would rather hide. If they just can’t cope (that’s the institution speaking), well, that’s the way it goes.

Sexual violence was part of my graduate experience as well. At Brown University, I watched a group of undergraduate women’s studies students struggling to change the university’s sexual assault policies—policies that included allowing the accused to question the victim in a semi-public spectacle. (This is still permitted by the student code of conduct at my current institution.) Like far too many administrative policies, this one mainly consisted of stonewalling survivors until they just gave up or left.

One of the students in a class I taught organized a group of women who wrote the names of rapists on bathroom walls. Every night they’d sneak into the library and write the names, along with the terrible stories of what those men had done. Every morning the janitorial staff would paint over the names. This went on for a couple of weeks until the Phil Donohue Show picked the incident up and it went the ’90s’ equivalent of viral. In response, the university, concerned because some of the accused rapists were from wealthy and powerful families, threatened to charge the student activists with libel. In the end, policies were changed and the students graduated, but, like most campuses, Brown continued to have its share of problems. A year later, fraternity brothers videotaped themselves having sex with drunken women and showed the films at parties.

Sexual violence followed me to my first faculty position at the University of Pittsburgh, where I took a job in a department that hadn’t yet tenured a woman. I was the second woman to be awarded tenure; the first quit her job shortly after being tenured because, as she tearfully told me in her office one afternoon, the climate was just too toxic. Three faculty members were having sex with graduate students in the department. I complained about the climate these relationships were creating, only to be told by one faculty member, “We can’t help who we fall in love with.”

The remaining two women faculty members were in and out of senior administrators’ offices for over a year before going public with our complaints during an external review of the department. When one of the external reviewers wrote in her report that the “climate was dangerous for female graduate students,” the university responded by investigating the women who had complained. Along with the other remaining woman in the department, I left at the end of spring semester, fleeing rather than fighting for a Title IX lawsuit, at a point when lawyers advised us it was an uphill battle.

Sexual assault appeared in other unexpected corners of Pitt. When I was directing the women’s studies program, a potential donor revealed to me that she was a survivor. We were standing in the doorway of my office with a development person when the donor mentioned in passing that the reason she wanted to support the program was that women’s studies had saved her life. When she was a freshman, she had been raped by two football players who had offered her a ride home. If she hadn’t made her way to the newly launched women’s studies program, she confided, she didn’t think she would have survived. I recall the look of shock on the development person’s face—disclosures about sexual assault were clearly not part of her everyday reality. My colleagues and I in women’s studies were saddened, but not surprised. We’d heard these stories before.

My understanding of the situation at Pitt developed over a period of years, partly because I was young and  hadn’t yet learned to recognize the patterns. But also, it can take time to learn a new institution and figure out what’s going on. At the University of Oregon, where I am now, my institutional education was accelerated. I was more senior, I was in a leadership position on gender issues and I knew what to look for. My second autumn here, a junior faculty member complained that as she was walking to meet me late one autumn afternoon, she was passed by a flatbed truck of shirtless men with the words “tits” and “vag” scrawled on their torsos. The next day (this was during Greek bid week), the word “cunt” was written on the doors of two campus buildings. A number of us wrote to the dean of student affairs about these incidents. We were told that they knew which fraternity was involved in “the situation,” as they referred to it, and they had discussed “the need to develop new and healthy traditions.” The chapter president and regional director had “provided assurances that the activity would never happen again.” Case closed.

Over the next two years, two graduate students disclosed incidents of sexual harassment to me (both wound up leaving their respective programs) and several graduate students I worked with became the targets of a litigious, alcoholic graduate student. In January 2013, I sent a letter to the then-new president of UO that began, “This is my fifth year at UO and I have become increasingly concerned about the University’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases.” I told him that I had observed a pattern “that suggests deep and serious procedural problems—problems that, if not addressed, will almost certainly erupt at some point.” Senior administrators in charge of policies, I added, were “too close to the problems or too defensive about ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and lacked the critical perspective to deal with the problems.” I should have done a better job of emphasizing that I was convinced that if the university didn’t intervene, more bad things would happen to young women on my campus.

Several months later, I learned that on the very day I sent that letter to the president, a young woman reported that she had been drugged and raped by a member of a fraternity.

But worse was to come this past fall, when a student I’d never met approached me to supervise an undergraduate  thesis dealing with sexism in one of the activities she was engaged in. In retrospect, I should have understood why she was asking me to do this—she’d heard from other students that I could be trusted. I should have known that she was reaching out. But I’d just agreed to supervise two other theses, I was in the middle of planning a big event and I was feeling too overwhelmed to add anything else to my to-do list. I told her I’d be happy to be a reader, but I couldn’t supervise her project.

A month later, another faculty member called me at home on a Saturday and told me that the student had taken her own life. Not a day has passed since where I don’t wake up thinking about her and my own failure to reach back.

Silence really does have a rusty taste of shame.

Faculty members have a responsibility to speak out and get involved in these struggles. Epifano documented the brutal response she received on the part of institutions she approached for support and justice. She was told to get over it, to move on, to let it go. Andrea Pino tells a similar story about UNC.

My colleague Jennifer Freyd describes what happened to Epifano and others as “institutional betrayal,” a form of secondary victimization that occurs when institutions seek to cover up, repress or punish those who speak out about sexual violence. As feminist critic Sara Ahmed put it recently in a book about diversity on college campuses, representatives of institutions all too often have an interest in only telling happy stories about happy institutions. And in order to tell those happy stories, administrators need to keep a whole lot of suffering out of their line of vision.

It’s time for faculty members to stop bearing silent witness to generations of pain. Students who refuse to back down in the face of their own suffering and institutional betrayal should be role models for us all, along with  faculty members like Occidental’s Dirks and Heldman. We need more faculty voices raised in protest against institutionalized sexual violence on campuses around this country. And we need to follow the lead of student activists who have been networking around the country to break the silence and to create climates and cultures of safety and consent.

If you’re not hearing these stories on your campus, maybe you’re just not listening.

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Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.