What About Everyone Else?

UVA Lawn

You have probably heard about the Rolling Stone article discussing the prevalence and denial of sexual violence at the University of Virginia. Or maybe you haven’t heard because unlike me, you are not an alumnus of that University and do not follow hundreds of Facebook pages devoted to sexual violence. Needless to say, I have been inundated with the article and comments from others. And my reaction has been strong.

My strong reaction is not because I am opposed to violence. It is not because UVA is my alma mater and I am concerned about its future as a school. It is not because this happens at every school with almost the same response from administration. My reaction is much more personal.

My reaction is personal because I experienced a rape by a Phi Kappa Psi brother during my first year also. And my rape happened more than 20 years ago. I was in my first semester and had attended a party with some of my suitemates. Somehow, I was separated from them after I had been drinking. And like other forms of predators, rapists are looking for those who are weak and vulnerable. He came up to me because he knew me. He was in my French class. As soon as I saw him, I felt more comfortable. I knew I was no longer alone. When he offered to walk me home, I was relieved to know I did not have to walk by myself.

But he had other plans. When we returned to my suite, most of my suitemates were standing in the common room. They witnessed my state of intoxication. They witnessed this third-year student take me in to my room. And they stood outside the room while he raped me. They just stood there. They didn’t knock. They didn’t ask if I was ok. They just stood there until he left. In the days to come, they never asked me what happened. They never asked me if I had was a willing participant. As a matter of a fact, they never said anything about it … ever.

Despite my horrific upbringing and uncanny ability to ignore all feelings, I reacted to the incident with a deep bought of depression. While I was used to sexual violence and had learned from my family to keep my mouth shut, this was different. I had considered UVA my escape. I considered it a safe place away from my violent family. When I was growing up, I had always felt that school was a safe place. The idea of living at a school was so relieving. I had hope that things were going to be different. And this experience taught me that there wasn’t a safe place. This experience showed me that my life would always be the same as my past. Whether that was right or wrong, that was what I learned.

I struggled with concentration after the rape. This straight-A girl started to falter. In that first year of college, my GPA dropped to below a 3.0 for the first time in my life. I continued to see my rapist in my French class and started to revisit my choice to study that language. It was too late to drop a class though, so I went to as few classes as possible knowing I needed to pass. I dramatically dropped back on my social life. I never went to another fraternity until after I had rushed a sorority, and even then, I went to the minimum number of events allowed by my new sisters.

I never told administration at the school, so I never had the opportunity to endure their reaction. I had already “learned” what happened when a victim of sexual violence tried to seek help. I had experienced the denial already. That being said, I am sure my experience would have been similar to others who have told administration. It would not have been a healing experience.

But I didn’t need the administration to feel awful. The bystanders made me feel bad enough. The rape drove a wedge between me and my suitemates. I no longer felt like I could trust them to help me. I felt they had stigmatized me for “allowing” that boy to walk me home and come in to my room. I felt that once again, the blame was on me.

While I believe it is critical for us to focus on the policies regarding sexual violence at universities, it is also important to take a look at ourselves. When something doesn’t seem right, are we asking questions? When someone appears to be victimized by others, are we standing up for them? When a person seems to be taking advantage of others, are we telling them to stop?

I spent my last years at UVA in a different mode. I would go to parties, but I would stay sober. I would walk through the fraternity house opening closed doors and taking intoxicated first-year sorority sisters home … sometimes kicking and screaming. I am not sure if I made a difference, but if nothing else, they knew I would be available if something wasn’t right. In a way, my school experience hardened me more. It taught me that I could not feel safe anywhere. It taught me to watch my back (and others’ backs). It taught me that my family was not an enigma in this world.

And I didn’t learn it from administration.

I learned it from everyone else.

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8 thoughts on “What About Everyone Else?

  1. You are right, or peers taught us how important it was to be silent. After all, it seemed that most folks thought that we were complicit on some level.

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing this Elisabeth. From a quick conversation with a staff member at U.Va. this morning, I am feeling some hope that this will truly shake the university to its core, and that the wake-up will begin. You are a powerful voice in the necessary waking up of the culture of sexual violence in this country – not just at universities. Thanks for your clarity, your bravery, and your endurance! Susan

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    • Thank you so much Susan. I do believe this brave young woman and the Rolling Stone article will make a huge difference at the University. However I can support the advocates, I will. The University has the opportunity to show their leadership here and I hope they will follow through completely (and not just while it has the attention of the public).

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  3. I continue to appreciate what you share about your personal experiences and how that helps me in my own thoughts and reactions regarding sexual violence and other topics you write about. I particularly appreciated this article as a reminder that it isn’t only about responding well after the fact, but working to prevent something from happening in the first place. Your questions are important for all of us to think about and implement in our various contexts, not just for college students!

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