Controversy escalates over sexual violence on campus.
Tuesday October 10, 2006
The issue of sexual violence erupted into political controversy at William and Mary last year as a greater than usual number of women came forward with reports of sexual assault. A 1998 U.S. Department of Justice study found that in a typical academic year, three percent of college women report a rape or attempted rape. Yet only three sexual assaults were reported at William and Mary in 2004–on a campus of 7,500 students. In the fall 2005 semester alone, however, William and Mary received four reports of rape from female students in just five weeks.
In one case, a non-student was arrested on charges that he raped and robbed a 22-year-old female student at knifepoint on November 29 in her off-campus apartment. In two other cases, students reported being raped by male students who they knew. Almost overnight, tension gripped a usually vibrant campus community.
Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that 17 percent of women have been forced to engage in sexual intercourse against their wills during their lifetimes. So at William and Mary, an estimated 500 women already have or will at some point personally experience sexual violence.
“There was a certain level of shock [after the 2005 string of assaults]. It was hard to imagine what was going on,” Will Coggin, a conservative campus activist and editor at the libertarian campus magazine The Remnant, told Campus Progress. Coggin learned of the events while studying abroad during the fall term. Coggin said that at the time, he saw at least one positive interpretation of the news: Perhaps the incidence of sexual assaults did not increase, but the number of victims coming forward to report the violence did.
Back in Virginia, William and Mary’s campus was flooded by local media. Articles described a campus “crisis,” noting the back-to-back timing of the assault reports. William and Mary News, the university’s official paper, reported in a Feb. 2, 2006 article that students had received worried phone calls from their parents. In an interview with the News, Bethany Stackhouse recalled her mother asking, “Aren’t you scared?” She responded, “Why should I be?” Students like Bethany were worried about safety, but not on a level that would change their daily lives. Some women believed that they would be safe as long as they did not put themselves in certain risky situations. But while caution is always advised, the assumption that victims of sexual assault could have prevented the crimes committed against them demonstrated the pre-feminist mindset at William and Mary.
Feminism on Trial
William and Mary Vice President of Student Affairs Sam Sadler usually disseminates campus information via mass email, including news of student deaths and natural disasters. It is also not atypical for announcements about serious, alleged crimes to be shared in these emails. In early November, Sadler informed the student body about the arrest and charge of a college senior male for rape, revealing his name. The message extended concern for the alleged victim and reminded the campus that the charged student was innocent until proven guilty.
“This is an occasion of extraordinary sadness for everyone involved,” Sadler wrote. “It is also a time of sadness for our entire community because I sincerely believe that what happens to one of us at William and Mary does affect us all.”
Soon after this sexual assault case was reported, the administration reassured students by announcing a set of new prevention and education initiatives, including the hiring of a sexual assault educator. These reforms, including sexual assault education programming and a peer advocacy program, were in the pipeline for the spring semester.
On January 5, 2006, during winter break, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a major Virginia newspaper, confirmed reports that the local prosecutor had dropped charges against the William and Mary student accused of rape. The student had already left William & Mary after being found responsible for sexual misconduct in a university judicial proceeding. When classes resumed for the spring semester, students were greeted with a shocking surprise. Anonymous flyers posted across campus directly addressed the female accuser in the latest rape case: “I know what you did last semester. Care to revise your statement?” Within hours, the administration began to remove the flyers, and President Gene Nichol sent a strongly worded email to the student body.
“It was cowardly–posted secretly, one supposes, by night,” Nichol wrote. “It was designed to injure. It may well have that effect. It was designed to intimidate. It may do that as well. It was unworthy of any member of the College community. It wounds our fabric. And it leaves me outraged.”
Nichol was not alone. Few people had actually seen the flyers before they were removed; however, many were surprised by such a confrontational and public move. A broad consensus agreed with President Nichol, who wrote in his email that the flyers emotionally and intellectually contradicted the character of the vast majority of William and Mary students.
The flyers sparked a new debate, exposing tensions between men and women, rights and protections, and privilege and fear on campus. Political lines along gender politics were drawn. Supporters of the flyer campaign, generally men, used campus media to defend the message and tone of the flyers. They believed the accuser’s story should be questioned since criminal charges had been dropped, even though the university had found evidence of sexual misconduct.
The contentious climate on campus may have led to women being scared of coming forward with reports of sexual assault. Women typically limited their response to the tone of the flyers, not its allegations. Constance Sisk, a progressive student-activist, observed that the controversy showed how part of “female identity [at William and Mary] is based on women not standing up for themselves. … [Female students] allow men to not question their assumptions.”
“Rape Case Blows Open”
On February 15, students saw more flyers. This time, however, the flyers announced a news exclusive by The Remnant about developments in the now infamous rape case. Vague new sources reportedly revealed inconsistencies in the accuser’s version of events. A web link to a more detailed online article appeared at the bottom of the flyer.
“Until now, students knew precious little about the specifics of what occurred that night. Statements by some of the involved parties, obtained by The Remnant, specify some of the critical facts that caused the charges against [the accused] to be dropped,” Coggin stated in a press release on February 15. Defending the continued coverage, he said, “The student body needs to be kept informed on this crucial matter.”
Campus feminists called the integrity of The Remnant staff into question. Sisk remembered the “aggressive manner” of the Remnant postings. Flyers were plastered over other flyers in almost every campus building. Furthermore, The Remnant wrote a press release calling attention to the flyers themselves. The “breaking” of the story impugning the female accuser with rumor and innuendo was so sensational that any news element was lost.
Neither the flyer nor website coverage included the source of the so-called “breaking news.” In fact, the source calling into question the events was the civil lawsuit filed by the accused. The Remnant report omitted this important fact, but included unnecessary details about the accuser, including her home address.
Shortly following The Remnant‘s “news-exclusive” release, the magazine sent an email to Sadler attacking the campus judicial system, and copied it to every student, faculty, and staff member. The Remnant staff believed the campus judicial system should require the same high burden of proof as the legal system, and criticized the removal of the flyers on free speech grounds.
Sadler replied to students explaining that the administration had a limited ability to address specific, pending cases: The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibit educational institutions from sharing personally identifiable information from a student’s record without that student’s consent. Sadler also responded to concerns that the controversy would deter future victims of sexual assault from coming forward and obtaining the help they need. But the actions of The Remnant had already successfully diverted attention from eliminating sexual assault and toward a debate about free speech and the campus judicial system.
How did a campus dialogue about sexual assault devolve into a debate about the rights of men to publicly attack accusers? As soon as the first set of flyers were posted, it was clear that conservative students intended to use the situation as a vehicle for political activism around issues of free speech and campus disciplinary procedures. Most unfortunate is that for any survivor, these flyers created an environment in which any outspoken accuser risked opening herself up to personal attack. In addition to dealing with the trauma of sexual assault, William and Mary survivors have the extra burden of fearing public retaliation.
Banner for Reform
As The Remnant continued pushing judicial reform (highlighted by a March forum), progressive students responded. The Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), a sexual assault advocacy and prevention group, publicly condemned The Remnant’s news coverage as irresponsible and urged students to wear red supporting survivors the following week. The response was significant. The Remnant urged students on the same day to wear blue for “the truth.”
As second-year law student Julian Carr pointed out in an editorial in student newspaper The Flat Hat, “The flyers were obviously meant to be in opposition to the “wear red” flyers, but how is supporting sexual assault survivors a lie? What is the purpose of this false dichotomy?”
Conservative activists implied in their statements that a number of women had personal motives to lie about sexual assaults. This message resonated with some on campus and left a residue of fear and distrust that threatens survivor rights.
According to William and Mary Dean David Gilbert, 6.4 percent of the student body was referred to the judicial council for possible disciplinary action in 2005, of which only four students were charged with sexual misconduct. Among these four students, one student was found “not responsible” while the other three received sanctions of probation, suspension, and contingent dismissal.
Given the small number of men actually penalized each year for sexual misconduct, it seems that a broad plan for eliminating sexual violence on campus would benefit more students than a campaign waving a banner for judicial reform or pushing a narrow political agenda that impugns the reputations of alleged victims.
Progressive students, however, have been inspired by the controversy. ASAP and the university’s newly-hired sexual assault educator are designing a program to provide peer-to-peer sexual assault crisis intervention. Advocates continue to make the issue visible through events like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network “Get Carded” Day. But at William and Mary, progressives face an uphill battle for women’s and victims’ rights against a strong cultural current of “blame the victim” misogyny.