An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Oct

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of living in Spain by grabbing bocadillos (thick, bready Spanish sandwiches) with my friends Sarah and Katherine.  We chatted with Rita, Katherine’s intercambio (language partner from Valencia), mouths full of bread, egg, and chicken.  The steady 2:00 sun filled the cafeteria of the Valencian psychology department with light.  We remarked on how much better our Spanish is getting: no longer do we have to fish around for quite so many words, or blush and stutter because we can’t get our point across.

Studying abroad has taught me two crucial skills thus far: to communicate openly and to know that I am stronger than I think.  Writing these posts has been a way of being frighteningly, cathartically open about my experiences.  Living in a country in which my native language isn’t the one emblazoned on street signs, splashed across advertisements, and spilling from people’s lips means that I treasure every moment of honest communication I can find.  Five weeks ago, I wondered whether I had it in me to stay here until December.  Now I know I can, and that knowledge has given me the peace of mind to discuss another subject that I feel is worth talking about.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses and other educational institutions has become such a topic du jour around sites like Jezebel and xoJane that it seems as if some people ignore it entirely.  Not so long ago, I would have counted myself among that number.  It happened, I knew, but surely not at my school – or if it did, it couldn’t occur frequently.  Then I came to Valencia, and during some of the most open, frank conversations I’ve ever had, I heard stories from almost every girl I met.  One got drunk at a party, went home with a boy but told him she didn’t want to have sex, and found him on top of her later.  Another was raped at a frat and then blacklisted.  The cases of assault and harassment seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.  With those stories filling my ears and humming in my blood, I decided to tell my own.

Almost six months ago, when joining an organization at my university that I very much enjoyed participating in, I found myself in need of fulfilling one last requirement to join.  As a prospective member, I had to get to know several long-term members in an informal setting.  The day before the semester was over, I needed one more meeting.   A man in the group had reached out to me previously, and since we shared interests in travel and foreign languages, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind chatting with me over coffee to nab that final requirement.  As the day wore on, the situation began to change.  First he pushed the meeting back to night.  Then he said he’d pick me up.  Then he said we could just go to his apartment.  Then there was no one else there.  It became clear to me that a casual conversation about all the places we’d traveled wasn’t what he had in mind.  Despite my repeated excuses, he continued kissing me, pinning me to the couch, and touching me.  It took me two hours to convince him that I wanted to go home.  I walked, shaking, up the steps to my dorm room, papers in hand.  In the ‘location’ space for the meeting slot on my sheet, he’d written that we’d talked in the library café.

It wasn’t rape, I kept telling myself over the following days.  It wasn’t rape.  I never said no, not exactly.  The other half of my brain kept picking out the flaws in those words.  He was twice my age, twice my size, and twice my strength.  He held a position of power over me, both physically and metaphorically, because he knew I needed one last meeting before the next day.  He probably thought that, as the only first-year female in my prospective group, I wouldn’t turn him down.  And just because it wasn’t rape didn’t mean that it didn’t signify anything.

I eventually went to the president of the organization to tell her exactly what had gone down.  Furious at what had happened to me, she wrote out a list of my resources.  Let me take a moment to say that, during this step of the process, I met a group of dynamic, intelligent individuals who took the time to constantly make sure I knew all my options.  I was fed waffles.  I was treated at the Pigeon Hole.  I was given legal advice and personal advice, all of which was sound.  But the president told me that the only way to expel this member from the organization was to hold a hearing and pass a vote.  Not only would this man have the chance to twist the scenario to his liking and reveal my name, I had no evidence.  This was a classic example of a he-said-she-said case: no evidence on either side, just bitter feelings and a gnawing sense that this had been wrong.

I then considered reporting him to the university.  In my research on that front, I found some truly disappointing statistics.  In the past twelve years, UVA hasn’t expelled a single student for sexual assault.  However, during the last academic term alone, it’s expelled six for violations of the Honor Code.  For those of you who aren’t students here, UVA expels students who break the Honor Code, as per the single-sanction rule.  The Honor Committee website defines an honor violation as follows: “a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  •  Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?”

Call me crazy, but sexual assault seems to be on par with, if not worse than, lying, cheating, or stealing.  To put things in perspective, let’s apply the same parameters to what happened to me.

  • Was an act of sexual assault/harassment committed?  Yes.  Again, let’s look at UVA’s resources.  The sexual violence page defines sexual assault as “any form of forced sexual contact.”  Compared to cases of rape and other forced sexual contact, I was lucky.  But did I want this contact?  No.
  • Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was sexual assault/harassment?  This one is a little harder.  Perhaps this student somehow interpreted my friendly behavior as a sign of interest.  I doubt that he took me to his apartment specifically thinking, “I am going to sexually harass this girl.”  But my reluctance and lack of verbal consent should have been a clear sign that I wasn’t interested.  A reasonable UVA student – hell, a reasonable human being – should know not to proceed from there.
  • Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?  I cannot imagine a response to this question other than “yes.”  Imagine a situation of sexual harassment or assault happening to someone you trust, and who trusts you.  Would you like that to happen?  No?  That’s answered, then.

I try not to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I am only a writer.  I am not a lawyer, nor am I an educator, nor am I any kind of authority on what kinds of laws govern sexual harassment/assault cases on university grounds.  I was not raped, just put in a situation that made me queasy.  And outside of the organization in which I am involved, I didn’t report this to anyone.  In some ways, that makes me part of the problem, and I wish I had taken further action six months ago.  But I know enough to say that all people – women and men both – who are enrolled at any educational institution deserve proper protection from that kind of situation.  If it does happen (and it will – I’m not naïve enough to imply that it can be eradicated entirely, even by the best schools), they should feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happened to them will be treated with the same gravity as lying, cheating, or stealing.  To any members of the UVA Sexual Misconduct Board who happen to read this post: you are on the right track, but you are not doing enough.  When students who have been courageous enough to report their stories (Kathryn, Annie, Anonymous Wahoo) consistently come away saying that they feel blamed and that their perpetrators are able to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, you may want to consider that the way that you’re evaluating cases could use some work.

I have come to love so many aspects of my university: lying on someone’s old quilt spread across the Lawn on a fall day, taking creative writing classes with the incredible English department, blissfully stuffing a Bodo’s bagel in my face.  Others I have come to hate, and none more so than this one.  The University of Virginia already has a centuries-old reputation for sweeping distasteful problems under the rug, such as misogyny and elitism.  It is now also gaining a reputation as an institution that fails to protect its own students in the most basic of ways.  Nearly ten years ago, Hook wrote a story called “How UVA Turns its Back on Rape.”  I’m still not sure it’s accurate to say things are much different.  Today, when debates over rape culture, allocation of blame, and nitpicking over sexual assault laws, semantics, and definitions run rife through the media, it is now more important than ever for UVA to tighten its standards.  A true community of trust, after all, does everything it can to foster that trust in every aspect of student life.

An aside: thank you to all the students I’ve met who have shared their stories with me.  You have all survived so much and are so incredibly strong.  You are my role models.

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2 Responses to “An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault”

  1. briandrush October 19, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    To begin with, I have to say that guy’s behavior, whoever he was, was contemptible and yes, I would agree with you that an abuse of power took place, and although it wasn’t rape as you say, he surely had actions in mind that would have been, and was unwilling to take no for an answer, and stopped just short of it being a felony. And I can’t agree that you didn’t say no, merely because you didn’t use that word. Anyone with a shred of sensitivity can tell when someone else isn’t interested, and for anyone with a conscience that ought to be a back-off signal. Guys like that give the rest of us a bad name. Ugh. And yes, the culture of many universities particularly in some parts of the country encourage or at least conceal that kind of activity.

    Second — it’s nice to see you’re still going and still writing, and fulfilling your dreams. In Spain, no less! Awesome. I hadn’t seen any of your poetry or anything else for a while, so I decided to put “Letters of Mist” into a Google search and was delighted to find new material. Good going, and I hope that the future outshines the past for you as the sun outshines a candle.

    • elizabethballou October 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

      Brian! I am so happy to see you back and commenting on my blog. Your commentary has always been the most detailed and the most inspiring, and my whole face lit up when I saw your well thought-out comment. The notion that there are people out there whom I have never met in person (like you) who still manage to act with such kindness and intelligence gives me hope. People such as you are so different from the man I wrote about. In addition, it’s good to know that others agree that what he did was unacceptable.

      I am lucky enough to be in Spain right now, and even more lucky that you’d take the time to Google my blog! Thank you again.

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