Call Me a Liar, I Don’t Give a Sh*t

The perspective of a UVA alumna and rape victim

Like most readers, Rolling Stone’s article about Rape at UVA left me feeling angry, disgusted and helpless. Unlike most readers, I’ve been haunted by these emotions since age 19 when I awoke to a “friend” having sex with me.

My roommates and I hosted friends at our apartment after a big party my sophomore year; we danced, giggled about the night and devoured late night food. After a while, I removed myself from the festivities, made my way to my room upstairs, closed my door, and passed out fully clothed, alone, on top of my bed. The next thing I knew, I woke up in pain. My friend was naked, on top of me, having sex with my unconscious body. I instinctively shoved him out of my room and locked the door. Luckily, the guy — whom some jokingly called “predator” — was too drunk to fight back. What began as a night of fun with friends turned into nearly a decade of turmoil. It took me years to move past denial and self-blame, and even longer to divulge my secret to family and close friends. The secret has poisoned me as much as the act itself. I built walls around myself. I internalized and displaced anger. I’m 27 and am just now developing the confidence to speak up, to advocate for myself, and to take action. After 8 years, I’m realizing that those feelings —of anger, disgust and helplessness,— while valid, don’t fuel change.

In the wake of this article, I implore others to channel their feelings into action. Yes, UVA has wronged its students and needs to be held accountable. However, to limit the problem to a single institution or to the Greek community is foolish. And it misses the greater point. Jackie’s grotesque story shines light on a national issue, one that reaches far beyond college communities. Her story is a part of a complex and extremely prevalent, yet hidden, problem I call peer-on-peer violence: rape, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and other violent acts that occur between men and women within a social network.

Institutions are justifiably facing pressure to effectively address the volume and complexity of peer-on-peer violence cases. But it’s not just the responsibility of governing bodies. The public must realize that this is, at its core, a societal issue. As such, it must also be addressed from within our social networks, families and local communities, and not only from the top down.

In her lifetime, 1 out of 6 women will be raped. 1 out of 3 will be a victim of intimate partner violence. This means that you know multiple women who have experienced (or will experience) peer-on-peer violence. That should resonate in our communities….but it doesn’t. Too many people are apathetic towards reports of sexual assault until they’re either personally impacted or the report is too explicit to ignore. Take Ray Rice’s assault. In February, headlines publicized that “Ray Rice Knocked Out Fiancé” but it wasn’t until a surveillance video of the act surfaced that the public became outraged — months after his initial public indictment. The factual information did not change, but the sensational nature of the video forced the public to become invested in the outcome of Rice’s actions. Similarly, the Rolling Stone article gained traction and touched so many in the UVA community; it was too inhumane and shocking to ignore.

Imagine how powerful it would be if all victims of peer-on-peer violence came forward? But that likely won’t happen, not yet at least. Despite the ubiquity of this violence, rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in the world, which means that relevant data is inaccurate (a huge problem in and of itself), and also begs the question: why are these crimes concealed? In the years following my assault, I felt all of the following emotions: I was terrified that people wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t want to be judged and scrutinized. I didn’t want to be the target of gossip and debate. I was in denial. I felt like it was deserved and that somehow it was my fault. I didn’t want to confront my perpetrator. Today, I’m still embarrassed and don’t want to be labeled as damaged goods.

There are a myriad of reasons contributing to victim silence, all of which are unique to each person. However, I think this silence largely occurs for the same reason: the fear of social stigma.

When the media reports on rape cases, the public (and, it appears, many institutions) tends to question the validity of each claim and attack the credibility of the victims. Many people question the amount of alcohol consumed, circumstances surrounding the event, and the overall plausibility of each account. A review of the comment section of the Rolling Stone article is equally as appalling as it is telling. “Julienb” comments that “…feminists demand equal treatment, and then infantilized women when they have sex, crying rape”. “Fraternities Are Not Evil” responds that “the ridiculous part about this article is that everyone immediately assumes that the rape is 100%…If [the guys] are innocent, I hope there are just as many media reports that show the girl falsely accusing them being sued for slander”. Furthermore, the Washington Post published the article, “Rolling Stone whiffs in reporting alleged rape”, devoted solely to undermining the truth of the story. The same occurs within actual communities, in the form of conversations, debates, threats and ostracization. Given these responses, why would a victim elect to come forward with her story? To be called a liar? To face public scrutiny? I didn’t, until now.

Society places the burden of proof on the victims during a time when we should feel protected. It has created a culture that marginalizes real victims to the point where, in most cases, we are unable to ever come forward.

Then consider the chain of events when we remain silent. Our well-being aside, the assailant faces zero consequences. Zero. Not a single ramification that otherwise would, hopefully, prevent it from happening again. The effect is simple: our social networks remain in a perpetual state of ignorance. Most are oblivious to the rapes and assaults that have occurred within their communities, by members of their communities. Some continue to operate under the false notion that they, and their peers, are immune to contributing to this disturbing reality. With the exception of my family and close circle of friends, no one knows that I was raped. Which means that in the last 8 years, I have watched my perpetrator live his life as if nothing had ever happened. He finished his last 2 years at UVA and walked the lawn on graduation day with my friends and me. He moved back to his hometown of Atlanta to begin a promising career. Today, he lives a seemingly comfortable life in complete anonymity. All of this frustrates me, but nothing compares to the daily guilt I feel knowing that my silence might have enabled him to rape and sexually assault other women.

Like all movements, awareness is the first step to pave the way for change. But it’s not only those in power who must create change. It’s on us. While institutions and community leaders will hopefully continue to build systems to qualify, triage and manage rape and assault cases, here are 5 ways we can challenge social norms and contribute to driving social change.

Accept the fact that these assailants are among our friends.

They are not strangers looming in dark alleyways. There is not a defining characteristic or archetype that correlates with or predicts this behavior. This is the most difficult — and troubling — part to wrap your head around. No one wants to believe this. But it’s true. And it’s key.

Stop marginalizing the victim.

Individuals need to empathize with and protect those in their communities who have been violated. What other crimes exist where we instinctively doubt the victim? By placing the burden of proof on victims, we operate on a different set of rules for sex crimes. Society seems to think that protecting an accuser is an automatic indictment of the accused, but the two are not the same thing. If we give women a voice, then more victims might find the strength to come forward in real-time instead of 8 years after the act — if ever. Only then can we, as individuals and a community, offer support, and more importantly, provide resources (e.g. peer support groups like AA, therapy, etc.) to address the psychological juggernaut these victims will endure for years to come.

Let’s hold the appropriate individuals accountable.

Now this is a slippery slope because it is extremely hard to prove cases of peer-on-peer rape and sexual assault. Even if a victim has the clarity and fortitude to seek medical attention or contact the police (both of which are much easier said than done), it’s still difficult to link the medical documentation that “sex occurred” with proving rape. This, in addition to other factors, means that legal action is often ineffective. In my case, the only proof I had was my word against his. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And it certainly doesn’t mean that he should be exempt from any form of accountability. Honestly, I don’t have an answer for this but I know that if nothing else, social consequences can be a powerful tool for change.

It’s not enough to be reactive.

If we accept this stark reality and the epidemic-sized scale of these crimes, then this can be an opportunity for education. We can demand research using a representative sample (therefore gathering accurate information), to gain a better understanding of both victims and perpetrators, to deconstruct this violence and to effectively address it. This can be the impetus for primary and secondary schools to initiate seminars, conversations, etc. about peer-to-peer violence (e.g. college students could volunteer to speak candidly with high school seniors about college and the prevalence of these crimes). The point being that we can reach and educate adolescents during their formative years to establish a healthy set of values before they enter college.

Finally, we need to create and then hold ourselves to new standards.

This means openly condemning those who exhibit any degree of disrespectful or alarming behavior toward women — whether it’s hitting on a drunk friend or pouring beer on a girl — all acts of disrespect should not, and can not, be tolerated. In practice, this can be far reaching. Maybe it’s standard for fraternity presidents to accept reports that question a brother’s non-criminal, but alarming, behavior. They could require him to attend a counselor. Clubs and sororities can create a council role to function as a peer-resource for victims to come forward. If my social circle had possessed this zero-tolerance for disrespect, then perhaps my perpetrator would have been chastised for drunkenly ‘creeping’ on girls instead of celebrated with that playful nickname “predator”.

Consider how these calls to action fit into your community and ask yourself, what can you do to stop this?