The details will seem all too familiar: A woman at the University of Virginia says she was raped at a fraternity. The school is accused of mishandling the matter. A journalist reports the allegations, leading to national news coverage and protests against the university.
Last fall’s Rolling Stone article? No, this was in 2004. The incident took place in 2001. The report appeared in a now-defunct weekly newspaper, The Hook, published in Charlottesville, Virginia, where UVA is located. Its accuracy has never been questioned.
Seemingly lost in the media firestorm surrounding Rolling Stone's now discredited article depicting a 2012 gang rape at a UVA fraternity house is one small nugget that's been reported many times: According to UVA spokesperson Anthony Paul de Bruyn, no UVA student has been expelled for sexual assault or rape in the last 10 years.
Asked if anyone had been expelled for such a case in the 45 years since the school began enrolling women, de Bruyn said he did not have access to those records.
A range of punishments, “up to and including suspension and expulsion,” for such acts, may be imposed by the school, de Bruyn said. According to Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo (first reported by WUVA in November), no student who admitted to sexual assault has been expelled since 2006, when she began serving on the SAB (and, later, the SMB). The only permanent expulsions in records de Bruyn has access to, he said, were handed down by the school’s Honor Committee for offenses such as cheating and lying.
“Students have been suspended [for sexual assault] for as long as two years,” said de Bruyn, “and have been required to undergo education, counseling, and other requirements before being allowed to return to the university.”
Figures the university provided to The Daily Progress, a newspaper in Charlottesville, suggest UVA women have little faith their school’s disciplinary process addressing sexual assault will turn out favorably for them: From January 2009 to November 2014, the school received 129 reports of sexual assault, but in just 14 cases did the women follow through with a hearing by the SMB.
The Rolling Stone piece placed UVA squarely at the center of a growing movement against campus sexual assault, but this is not just a story about UVA: Nationwide, sexual violence happens more often to college-age women than to women in other age groups, according to the Department of Justice [pdf]. College students reported sexual assault and rape at a lower rate than did nonstudents their age but were much less likely to report the crimes to police than were nonstudents. That suggests the actual incidence among college women is likely greater than among nonstudents and greater than among all women. Victims, women’s groups, and many legal experts say schools’ disciplinary measures, as UVA’s figure of zero expulsions indicates, fall far short of justice.
"There needs to be consequences on campuses," said Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action & the Media and coauthor, with Jessica Valenti, of Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. "Saying to someone that you are no longer welcome here because you raped someone is very effective…and all too rare."
Since TakePart first covered the issue more than a year ago, campus sexual assault has exploded onto the national consciousness. President Obama created a task force in January 2014, and the Department of Education revealed in May the list of schools it is investigating for mishandling reports of sexual assault on campus. Today, 95 schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Occidental, and the University of California, Berkeley, have been or are under investigation.
In 2001, Annie Hylton was an 18-year-old first-year student and a member of the women's varsity volleyball team at UVA when she went on a blind date with a 21-year-old third-year named Matthew Hamilton, reported The Hook. They went out to dinner with another couple, then returned to Hamilton’s fraternity, where Hylton said she became ill despite having consumed only a small amount of alcohol. She vomited and then passed out. When she woke up, The Hook reports that she said, “Hamilton was on top of her engaging in sexual intercourse. She says she asked him to stop and he held her down and continued."
She went to the hospital the next morning, where, as part of standard procedure, medical personnel conducted a Physical Evidence Recovery Kit procedure, which Hylton described in the article as “totally humiliating.” She later reported the assault to the university.
At the time, UVA handled such claims through a committee called the Sexual Assault Board. The board found Hamilton guilty of violating the school's code of conduct, and Hylton told The Hook he was required to attend counseling, prohibited from contacting her, and banned from the first-year dining hall and one of the university gymnasiums where she trained. UVA's Code of Honor, a long-standing and much-revered student-run disciplinary system for students caught cheating, lying, or stealing, requires that anyone found guilty of those infractions be expelled. Hylton told The Hook that she was threatened with expulsion if she spoke publicly about the case, which the U.S. Department of Education later wrote to the university president could be a violation of federal law. Between 2002 and November 2004, while Hylton was a student, 60 UVA students reported sexual assaults to the school. Not one student found guilty by the SAB was expelled. During that period, 38 UVA students were expelled for Code of Honor violations such as cheating.
Hylton filed a nearly $2 million civil lawsuit against Hamilton in 2003, then went public with her story a year later. In 2005, after she graduated, the jury in her civil suit found that Hamilton had been “negligent” in his treatment of Hylton, awarding her $150,000 in compensatory damages, but did not conclude Hamilton had committed rape. The rape kit revealed that Hylton had been sexually active that night but did not show evidence of a struggle. That was consistent with Hylton’s story. Throughout the SAB process and civil trial, Hamilton maintained his innocence.
In March 2004, Susan Russell, the mother of a woman who said she was raped while attending UVA, founded a website after university officials dissuaded her daughter from reporting the crime, she told The Hook. She said that more than 100 women who said they were raped at UVA contacted her through the site.
Some guys view sex as a conquest or a status symbol. I'm sure this is common most places, sadly.
Mariah Shaw, USC graduate
In a fall 2005 speech, UVA President John Casteen implored men at UVA to respect and watch out for their "sisters" at the university.
Casteen’s words apparently had little effect. Eramo, head of the Sexual Assault Board since 2006 and the Sexual Misconduct Board since its inception, told WUVA that in 2014 she’d spoken to 38 victims of sexual assault out of the approximately 8,200 female undergraduates.
The Daily Progress noted a spike in the number of reported incidents of sexual misconduct at UVA after the Rolling Stone article came out, with most allegations dating back six years or more—and some dating back decades.
In 2006, The Hook broke another story about rape at UVA, this time about an alleged gang rape that occurred in 1984. Twenty years later, one of the attackers, who had become a recovering alcoholic, wrote a letter of apology to the victim, acting on elements of the 12-step substance abuse recovery program, which calls for identifying those the alcoholic has harmed and making amends.
The apology triggered in the victim long-buried memories about the attack and UVA officials’ failure to help her. She brought charges, and her attacker was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Spokesperson de Bruyn emailed, "The University of Virginia encourages the reporting of incidents of sexual assault and considers the promotion of a culture of reporting to be essential. We are committed to ensuring that our policies and practices provide the appropriate response and support for those who report sexual assault."
Although studies have explored the problem of campus sexual assault and rape over the years, it took the threat of federal action against schools to bring the issue to the fore.
In 2011, campus sexual assault victims around the country were starting to band together, filing Title IX claims against their schools. Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits discrimination against women at federally funded schools. The legal strategy claimed that the schools’ failure to properly adjudicate women’s claims amounted to sexual discrimination.
But some argue that Title IX itself is the problem, in that it requires schools to investigate and adjudicate rape cases. Many believe that should be handled by police. In Virginia, a bill now under consideration would require schools and local police to report all sexual assaults to state law enforcement within 48 hours while allowing victims to remain anonymous.
Russell, for example, said she supports the Virginia bill, as she believes schools have been reluctant to hand down harsh punishments or expel known rapists. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported recently, Russell told a Virginia House of Delegates panel that her daughter's case might have been successfully prosecuted if such a law had been in place.
“She was one of a handful of women with the emotional fortitude and willingness to file a police report so her attacker would be removed from the campus and not be a threat to anyone else,” Russell told the Times-Dispatch.
Others argue that such reporting would deter too many victims from coming forward. Dana Bolger, founding codirector of the campus sexual assault activist group Know Your IX, told The Washington Post, “Survivors tell me time and again that if their school had been required to hand their reports over to the police, they would never have come forward to anyone at all.”
According to the FBI, rape is the most under-reported violent crime, more so among college women as compared with those victims in the general population.
Describing an incident that occurred while she was visiting a friend at a different Virginia university in 2007, one woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained why she did not report her rape:
"You go to a party with some friends and you end up having too much to drink, and suddenly you're out of it, separated from your friends, and the guys are hitting on you. Your head is spinning and you can't find your friends and it’s late and you find yourself alone with a guy, and suddenly he's insisting, pleading, being kind of aggressive, saying he'll take care of you, and maybe you end up in his room, and you're vulnerable. And then suddenly he really starts forcing himself on you, and you try to fight back but you can't, and then he actually rapes you.
"Afterwards, you're really too ashamed of yourself for putting yourself in that position," the woman continued, "and you know that no one is going to take you seriously if you say you were raped, given how drunk you were and that you were hanging out with the guy. So you just don't do anything.”
Another reason may be how women who do report are treated. Colleges that have neglected to deal with sexual violence on campus are not so different from the criminal justice system: According to the Department of Justice, only 8 to 37 percent of rapes are prosecuted; convictions fall into the 3 to 18 percent range.
In January, more than a dozen national sorority organizations prohibited members of their UVA chapters from attending the Jan. 31 "Boys’ Bid Night,” a wild night at UVA fraternities that has been well attended by sorority women in years past. Some sorority members found this patronizing: “Instead of addressing rape and sexual assault at UVA,” one petitioner wrote, "this mandate perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, sexual objects." New rules on alcohol use and the way frat parties are conducted, referred to as "safety measures" by UVA officials, were recently imposed, though some fraternity organizations resisted.
Such actions seem to acknowledge a danger for women attending frat parties at the school—one that might be mitigated if men were held accountable for their behavior. State legislatures and Congress are considering legislation to bolster Title IX, and schools are implementing new policies and disciplinary procedures.
The 2013 renewal of the Violence Against Women Act allows students to have a lawyer present while filing complaints and requires schools to expand anti-rape education and outreach programs. The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, introduced last summer by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, would assign women a special advocate to guide them through sexual assault claims and includes transparency and accountability guidelines.
In California and New York, the legislatures have passed “affirmative consent” legislation, also known as “Yes Means Yes” laws. The California law states, "Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time."
"I think we're heading in the right direction," said William Flack, an associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University and an organizer of the national group Faculty Against Rape. "We're seeing some improvements in the policies and procedures used by some colleges in adjudicating these cases, in encouraging survivors to come forward, and in efforts at prevention education, like the bystander intervention programs."
Despite such efforts, some college women and women’s rights activists believe campus sexual assault will remain a problem as long as certain cultural attitudes persist at colleges and universities.
"The fraternity-sorority scene is big and powerful," said Mariah Shaw, who recently graduated from the University of Southern California. "I think that, coupled with the excessive amount of money and drugs and alcohol available to these students, contributed to a hookup culture in which sex was treated very casually."
Though Shaw said she was never a victim of sexual assault, she had friends who were and said she felt "a lot of sexual pressure" from an older fraternity member she dated when she was a freshman.
"Some guys view sex as a conquest or a status symbol,” said Shaw. “I'm sure this is common most places, sadly."
Friedman agreed. "Some young men are still acting on a script," she said. "Sex is seen as an accomplishment."
The good news is that studies suggest that such cultural shifts need to reach a relatively small number of men, and protect a relatively small number of potential victims. A 20-year study by David Lisak, a psychologist formerly at the University of Massachusetts Boston, found that nine out of every 10 campus rapes are committed by repeat offenders. Another common theme: The men seek out the most vulnerable women and try to get them drunk.
"It's quite well-known amongst college administrators that first-year students…are particularly at risk for sexual assault," Lisak told NPR in 2010.
Focusing on sexual assault during freshman orientation, encouraging bystanders to get involved, and challenging dangerous attitudes regarding sex even before guys get to college are making a difference at many schools. Last year, the White House launched the "It's on Us" campaign to end sexual assault on campus, an awareness program that encourages young people to watch out for one another and intervene when they think there might be a problem. Similarly, a program for middle and high schoolers called Mentors in Violence Prevention enlists admired upperclassmen to speak frankly with incoming freshmen about hookup situations, what's not cool, and how to recognize potentially dangerous situations and intervene on a young woman’s behalf.
Kate Coleman, a second-year student at the University of Texas at Austin, said the freshman orientation emphasizes what is and isn't sexual assault.
"They make it very clear, through skits and talks at required freshman orientation, what sexual assault is in many contexts," she said. "This way, it isn't a matter so much of a gray area, and everyone has a better sense of what could be viewed as sexual assault."
Though Coleman said she hadn't dealt personally with sexual assault, she had "talked to women who have regretted the night before" and "intervened in a close call with a drunk friend of mine and a pushy guy."
Stories like Coleman’s and Shaw's are a case of déjà vu for Carol Bohmer, a sociologist and lawyer who cowrote, with Andrea Parrot, the 1993 book Sexual Assault on Campus: The Problem and the Solution. That was after concern over “date rape,” the term coined at the time for an assault by an individual known to the victim, swept college campuses in the early ’90s.
"It's depressing to see how little has changed," Bohmer said.
Bohmer is skeptical of recent public policy initiatives and changes to school disciplinary systems because, she said, they have often been superficial responses. The problems, she said, are in the wider society.
"Until our social attitudes and values change in society, colleges and universities will continue to reflect them," she said.