A few days ago, my small public university in Kentucky was plunged into a national controversy involving sexual assault.
There wasn’t a high-profile rape case or a victim who came forward to share her story. We’ve had our share of scandal, and I have no doubt sexual assault is a too common and under-reported problem, as it is on campuses across the country. But this time rape culture reared its head in the enthusiasm leading up to Saturday’s football game against Vanderbilt University, a rival school just one hour south rocked by a 2013 gang rape involving football players.
One of those former players, Cory Batey, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison. Another, Brandon Vandenburg, is scheduled to be sentenced this week.
Authorities say the two men, along with two of their former teammates who await trial, assaulted an unconscious female student, who was stripped, sodomized, urinated on and otherwise molested in a dormitory as the perpetrators took photos and video.
The case shook Vanderbilt’s campus, raising questions about the prevalence of sexual assault at the Nashville private school and the entitled attitude of athletes. Like other high-profile assaults, it drew attention to rape culture on college campuses. As the prosecutor said in court, there was hope the case could “serve as a deterrent.”
Instead for some of our students at Western Kentucky University this week, the horrible incident became fodder for a series of “jokes” spray painted on sheets and hung at a fraternity house and off-campus properties in the days leading up to Saturday’s matchup between Vanderbilt’s “Commodores” and WKU’s “Hilltoppers.”
Several of the signs explicitly referenced the case, such as: “Vandy Goes to Court WKU Goes to Bowl Games.” Others turned Vanderbilt’s “Anchor Down!” cheer into a euphemism for rape: “The Only Way Vandy Scores is When Girls Are Anchored Down. Go Tops!” Yet another, which the Tennessean reports was seen on the ground in a Twitter photo, linked Vanderbilt with Brock Turner, the Stanford swim team member who got a six-month sentence after an assault on an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
Other signs had little connection to the rape case and just denigrated women in general. One that hung across the street from a friend’s home, where she lives with her young son next door to a house with three girls under 13, read: “Vandy Football Sucks and Their Girls Swallow.”
National outlets picked up the story, focused on the jabs at Vanderbilt as the criminal cases continue, and many of the banners were taken down. The “WKU Greek Humor” Twitter account, which had promoted pictures of many of the signs, said someone got “butt hurt” and “can’t take a joke.” The president of a fraternity behind some of the banners apologized and told the Tennessean they were just “an immature joke” and “not in any way meant to make fun of women or sexual assault allegations associated with the Vanderbilt football team”–though, obviously, that is exactly what they did. University officials publicly called on students and fans to refrain from mocking the case with signs at Saturday’s game, which drew a record crowd; Vanderbilt won in overtime 31-30.
While I’ve never been a big football fan and I developed my distaste for Greek life as a first-generation college student who saw in their fancy houses and letter sweatshirts the trappings of privilege, I do understand how young people can get caught up in a rivalry–and I respect their right to free speech. But in the aftermath of the incident–as feminists on campus, the regional rape crisis center, the local riot grrrl group and others push for sensitivity training for students involved–I hope that we can explain why these “jokes” have no place in the hype over a game.
In mocking the sexual assault scandal at a rival school, WKU students revealed that rape culture is very much present at ours.