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The U-Va. Rape Case and Feminist Confusion

The U-Va. Rape Case and Feminist Confusion

By Heather Wilhelm - December 4, 2014

Over the past two weeks, a horrific story, originally published in Rolling Stone, has rocked the University of Virginia. According to the article, a bubbly U-Va. freshman named Jackie attended a fraternity date party two years ago. There, she was lured into a dark room, pushed to the floor, beaten atop a shattered glass coffee table, and brutally gang-raped as part of a twisted pledge initiation ritual.

The details, if you choose to read them, will make you sick. They’ve also set the U-Va. campus on fire, sparking student protests, a police investigation, a temporary suspension of fraternity life, and mild administrative panic.

If you think the story has details that stretch credulity, you’re not alone. Media critics from across the ideological spectrum are focusing on various inexplicable-sounding assertions in the article. Jackie’s friends refusing to take her to the hospital because they desperately want to secure invites to future gang-rape fraternity parties strikes me as particularly odd.  But the fact that the accused rapists were never contacted by Rolling Stone, which is a basic journalistic requirement, is even more problematic.

With national media scrutiny and a new police investigation—Jackie never reported her rape to the police, and refused to file an official complaint with the school—the plot will continue to thicken. But let’s assume, for a moment, that Jackie’s story is true. If you look at it through the prism of assumed truth, the reaction to it becomes increasingly bizarre.

Jackie’s rape account was violent and deeply disturbing. As skeptical Worth editor Richard Bradley has pointed out, sections of it (one frat brother allegedly calls Jackie “it” while ordering another pledge to grab her leg) are reminiscent of “The Silence of the Lambs.” This is not some drunken misunderstanding at a party. It is the equivalent of a war crime. The perpetrators, if guilty, were monsters.

So it was odd to see how University of Virginia students, long trained in the feminist doctrine of “rape culture,” responded to this show of unadulterated evil. They organized—wait for it—a “Slut Walk.” In the face of Jackie’s story, students, as a freshman organizer named Maria Dehart told the U-Va. student paper, need to “fight against this victim-blaming, slut-shaming culture we have that sexualizes women, yet shames them for being sexual.”

Wait, what? Ms. Dehart has apparently not yet attended the freshman sociology seminar that will inform her that rape is usually about power and violence, not sex. We’ll leave that aside for now, however, because things get weirder. A later protest rally, organized by university faculty—and inspired, it must be remembered, by a supposed serious crime with a group of violent assailants apparently still on the loose, free to hurt other women—was officially titled (and again, please gird your loins) “Take Back the Party.”

“Take Back the Party”? What on earth does this even mean? Weren’t we talking about a reported gang rape? Rest assured, kids, the U-Va. faculty is no bunch of old, killjoy fuddy-duddies: “We are not here to shut down the party,” their public statement eagerly assures students. “We are here to support a SAFE social environment for women as well as men. This is a FACULTY action demanding an end to sexual assault at UVA." 

Note to the esteemed faculty at U-Va.: Writing things in ALL CAPS almost always makes you look a little CRAZY. Also, pushing that well-known fact aside, doesn’t this all seem terribly blasé? The way the faculty statement reads, you’d assume that gang rapes at fraternity events occur all the time—and if Jackie’s story is accurate, and gang rape is indeed a check-the-box fraternity pledge requirement, I guess that is indeed the case. Instead of “Taking Back the Party,” shouldn’t we be focusing on “Arresting the Rapists”? Anyone? Anyone? Jackie?

When you think about it, it’s easy to see why Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the Rolling Stone writer who wanted to cover America’s allegedly rampant campus “rape culture,” was so taken by Jackie’s story. Jackie, to put it starkly, was the perfect victim. She didn’t drink a lot. She wore a conservative outfit. She didn’t do anything sexual. She was shoved in a room. Her story is black-and-white. If she is telling the truth, she is the inarguable victim of an utterly horrible crime.

It’s been curious, then, to see the continued retreat of both media and activists into tired and incongruous feminist tropes: the passionate declarations against “slut-shaming” (Seriously, how is that even applicable here?); the “no means no” chants (Pro tip: gang rapists do not care about consent); and the faculty calls for fair and equal party “turf” (Really, an English professor declared this to be key).

It’s almost as if modern feminists, earnestly schooled in a cloudy haze of relativism and “rape culture” and “entitlement,” don’t have the words for pure evil—or, more alarmingly, they don’t even understand the concept. It’s also worth noting that Jackie, repeatedly labeled as too “afraid” or “weak” or “fragile” to file a complaint—an action which would, if her accusations are true, protect other women from the same fate—is never called to push for justice. Among feminists, the university, together with the broader “system,” is blamed. 

Rolling Stone has gone silent, refusing to answer press questions on its explosive story, issuing a terse one-paragraph statement instead, applauding Jackie’s “courage.” Meanwhile, Ms. Erdely, the author of the piece, admitted the following when talking to Slate: “What exactly happened? I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know.” 

Well. If Jackie’s story is true, let’s hope her rapists will be brought to justice.  If it’s not true, it might be fair to stop and wonder who the real purveyors of “rape culture” really are.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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