Regarding Sexual Assault at UVa

I’m a University of Virginia parent. My daughter graduated in 2013, never having been assaulted, thankfully. She’s home from grad school for Thanksgiving now, and of course the Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” has been a topic of conversation. (Warning: this article is very graphic and disturbing.)

It’s not the first time we’ve discussed the subject. One of my daughter’s friends was drugged and raped three years ago. I blogged about it here. The very short version is: not only did the university not take her case seriously, or take any action against the accused, he was later made a teaching assistant. During that entire episode, the university employed exactly the same strategies described in the Rolling Stone article: discourage prosecution, take no action, prioritize the university’s public image above all.

So, the article was not a surprise to us, or to anyone familiar with UVa’s track record. This problem has been so pervasive that at least one student organization was formed a year ago to inform rape victims of their rights and pressure the university to take action. It is astonishing to me that the university administration couldn’t see this coming. It’s also disappointing–to put it mildly–that a female university president could maintain such clearly deliberate and willful ignorance about a pattern of sexual assault on campus.

All of the criticism of UVa is entirely justified. It does bring to mind, though, something that has always bothered me about American parents, and that I believe contributed to this situation.

When I was touring colleges with my daughter, we were both surprised at how much attention every tour gave to campus security, both by the tour guides and the other parents on the tours. It was a bit of an obsession, really. I think there were more questions about security than about classes.

Of course, campuses should be reasonably secure. Dorms should lock, paths should be well-lighted, call boxes should be available. But, when we visited UVa for graduation, we stayed in brand new dorms that not only required key cards for entry (a reasonable system) but each individual room was alarmed. You couldn’t even prop a door open for more than a few seconds before a loud alarm would go off. You can imagine how well we slept. And, those alarms do precisely zero to keep anyone from bringing anyone they wanted into the dorm, or into their dorm rooms. As most rapes on campus are committed by friends or acquaintances of the victims, they also do nothing to prevent most rapes.

Give me a break. College is not summer camp, nor should it be. Parents seem to forget that their special flowers are technically and legally adults when they go to university. People of same age, but of different demographic backgrounds, are working, raising kids, and serving in the military. Except for our bizarre and useless drinking laws, 18 year olds have all the legal rights and responsibilities of adults.

This is not to excuse any inaction on the part of the University of Virginia. It is to say that perhaps universities should focus less on the illusion of security, created to satisfy helicopter parents and lawyers, and more on common-sense measures that would be taken at any responsible company in order to ensure a safe workplace for adults.  For example, if an employee has a history of harassing, or worse yet, assaulting other employees, then you fire his ass. You get him out of that environment. I mean, duh.

Getting back to the parents: if your newly adult son goes to college without understanding what rape is, and that rape is wrong, then you have not done your job. It is not the university’s job to teach him that no means NO. It is not the university’s job to teach your son values. It is your job. If you have not done your job, then you have no business sending your kid to university. Raise your hand if you think there was never any sign that this guy was capable of such an act. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

It is not the university’s job to “educate” a young man who apparently thinks that carefully planning and enacting a gang rape is a good idea, or worse yet, one that he will get away with. In fact, that young man belongs in prison, but if we can’t put him there, we can at least keep him off campus, where he has no actual right to be, despite having been raised with a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement. (An excellent commentary on the phenomenon of white male privilege at UVa can be read here.)

Furthermore, it is not the university’s job to teach your daughter to listen to her gut, to never take a drink that she didn’t see come right out of the bottle, to always have a buddy when she goes out at night, and to understand that parties hosted by large groups of young men for the purpose of getting young women drunk could be dangerous places to hang out.

I am certainly not victim-blaming here. I am reacting to the attitudes of parental denial I have personally witnessed, heard about from my daughter, or read in the media. I repeat: college is not summer camp. Your money will not buy absolute security for your daughter. It’s not that easy. When you send your young woman to college, she needs to be prepared for that environment. It is your job as a parent to make sure that she is. You cannot guarantee your daughter’s safety, but you have an obligation to do the best that you can.

UVa administrators refused to acknowledge the breadth of the sexual assault problem on campus for fear of bad publicity. There is no real excuse for allowing a problem like this to go unchecked. However, they were responding to a market composed of parents who want desperately to believe that their children will be safe at college and that colleges have the ability to make it so.

So, can we stop pretending that universities are responsible for raising our children? Can we understand that by age 18, our kids are adults, with values and skills that we taught them—for better or for worse? Can we acknowledge that campus rapes are not teachable moments for children, but felonies committed by adults who should be prosecuted and removed from a situation in which they can do further harm?

There will never be such a thing as a perfectly safe university campus. But if we can all stop pretending that this particular unicorn exists, we may be able to achieve safer environments for our daughters.

I think I’ll go hug mine now.


One comment

  1. you always have such a clear eyed take on things. i forwarded this to my daughter, a freshman this year. one of her good friends is a freshman at uva and probably has stories to tell.


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