TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of sexual assault
By now, most people will have read, or at least heard of, the Rolling Stone article that details the alleged gang rape of Jackie, a first-year student at the University of Virginia (UVA). The day I read her story, my reaction was similar to that of my female friends: sadness, anger, empathy, but not surprise. When I heard that Jackie’s story was being questioned, though, my reaction was slightly different from that of my peers: My first thought was, “So what?”
So what if there are inaccuracies in this individual’s story? The journalist side of me tells me that the devil is in the details, but a larger part of me knows that the real devil is the rape culture that pervades college campuses. The national obsession with proving or disproving Jackie’s story only serves to obscure this point.
To me, and to many other college women, it doesn’t matter if Jackie’s story is discrepant in some areas. What matters is that while we nitpick every detail of her account, campus rape continues to make survivors out of thousands of women every year. What matters is that I have lost count of the number of friends who have been assaulted in my three-and-a-half years on campus. What matters is the pain, the feelings of shame and the fact that the survivors I know are just a fraction of the one in five college women who will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.
No matter the outcome of Jackie’s case, nothing will change how her story rang true for too many college women. I know it rang true for me.
It was only after reading Jackie’s story, and hearing the outpouring of support from other survivors, that I was finally able to tell my friends what happened to me my freshman year at Occidental College. It was after our first big campus dance that I was introduced to the underbelly of campus hookup culture. Wandering the dance floor, drunk and separated from my friends, I ran into an upperclassman who invited me back to his dorm for an after-party. The “party,” it turned out, was the two of us alone in his bedroom. Despite the fact that I was unable to walk on my own, and repeatedly told him not to remove his clothes, he carried me to his bed and undressed us both. Fifteen minutes later, when I left his room in tears, he told me that what happened was my fault—that I was “too beautiful to resist.” I never filed a formal complaint, because it wasn’t until I began reporting on sexual assault in my sophomore year that I even named what had happened to me as rape.
When I told this story to my friends recently, the men looked at me in disbelief. But the women nodded their heads in agreement, as every one of them had experienced something similar.
One of my sorority sisters was also assaulted her freshman year and, unlike me, attempted to report the assault to our school. Instead of finding support, she was repeatedly rebuffed by administrators, driving her into a spiral of depression, self-loathing and anorexia that required a semester-long leave to recover from. Last year, a coworker from my campus job left school and moved across the country. It was later revealed that she had been assaulted by another of our coworkers and was afraid to return to campus.
This is the reality of being a woman in college: Interspersed with the popular tales of wild parties and consensual hookups are whispered stories of aggression, coercion and rape. But don’t take my word for it: Look up the pages upon pages of similar stories that women shared in the wake of the Rolling Stone piece. Instead of focusing on Jackie’s case, let’s focus on the larger culture that exists—at UVA, at Occidental, at others schools across the country—that makes women feel unsafe on their own campuses.
One questionable account does not change the fact that the problem with rape cases isn’t false reporting; it’s underreporting. False reports make up only 2 to 8 percent of all rape reports, while less than 5 percent of college sexual-assault survivors report their rapes at all. Yet our first reaction to any account of rape is to immediately question its validity, just as the media has done to Jackie’s account in the last few weeks. We become consumed with nit-picking every detail of the story, even though we know that trauma can make victims’ memories fuzzy and that many rapes aren’t reported until years after the fact.
Our tendency to distrust accounts of rape not only re-traumatizes the survivors but contributes to a culture that allows serial rapists to go free. It’s scary to go about my day knowing that more than 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are committed by serial rapists, and that only 1 to 4 percent of alleged assailants are ever punished by their university. It’s scary to go to class, to sports games, to parties, knowing that perhaps someone who has assaulted me, or one of my friends, will be there.
This is what we should take from Jackie’s story, whether it’s fully accurate or not: Being a woman on a college campus today means feeling, at times, threatened, abandoned and scared. Talking heads can deconstruct her story all they want, but they won’t make those feelings any less real.
Photo of protest against UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi by Flickr user Bob Mical under license from Creative Commons 2.0