It’s a blue, cold Thursday in January and I’m walking down Rugby Road on the first night of fraternity rush at the University of Virginia, brushing past groups of identical gossiping boys in matching preppy outfits: fleeces, checked oxfords, khakis, boots. “Excuse me,” they say politely when our coats touch, then turn back to each other and their offhand drawling: “What was that back there, Bronyfest?” “Not enough of a tobacco enthusiast for that house, I can’t just sit around ripping cigs.” “I wasn’t feeling them, dude, they had, like, a serial rapist vibe.”
I am startled at the boy who just threw that out in the winter night to his two friends, because all four of us are crossing the street on our way to Phi Psi, the fraternity whose huge Christmas-lit mansion is a landmark in the middle of the physical fraternity scene in a way that the fraternity itself—until Rolling Stone—was not. But the boys were talking about a druggier, prep-school frat; they’re not talking about Phi Psi.
No one here is talking about Phi Psi, at least not “Phi Psi,” the figural fraternity or the true, unchecked scourge of sexual assault that it was used to represent. (The frat has since been cleared of charges, with “no basis to believe that an incident occurred.”) In fact, if there is a single male interacting with the Greek system—or even one human on campus generally—who wouldn’t rather tuck away last semester as a bad dream, I won’t hear about it over the next five days. It was enough that Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s egregiously misreported gang rape story put everyone at Thanksgiving dinner with Grandma asking about consent mechanics between bites of mashed potato, but there were three undergraduate suicides, too, and Hannah Graham, a first-year girl found dead a month after she went to a party and then disappeared.
It was a lot. Everyone’s ready to move on. Rush numbers are robust and steady, both for frats and sororities, which rope in a third of the undergraduate population: the boys in fleeces on the street are just trying to hurry up, bro, and belong. “Those guys are so Southern I felt racist just walking in,” one says. “That one dude was gay as fuck,” says another. Their elementary language belies both the bigoted underpinnings of the Greek system that are common to every Southern prestige structure—classism, racism, homophobia, sexism—as well as the genuine desire among many participants in these structures to process and transcend the bad blood that stains the corners of their party.
The boys walk into the Phi Psi house, which is—as per usual, and like all the other frats I’ll see over the weekend—gently flouting the university rules that mandate a “dry” rush process. I keep going, and a blonde girl representing her Christian student group gives me a set of hand warmers. “Good luck!” she says happily.
I fall into a swarm of girls, also rushing, all in loose staticky curls, high boots, tiny skirts that disappear under black quilted jackets. They line up outside sorority houses, whose doors open for brief minutes, little portals to golden light and a stack of hotties on the stairs who clap their Potential New Members through the entryway in part 49 of 204,583 of the elaborately choreographed (and actually dry) process that is sorority rush. The girls will receive their bids on Monday, and, newly crowned with colors and “sisters,” they’ll get to attend increasingly elaborate fraternity events until the bender explodes in a series of white-boy mobs and Greek letters on January 31, everyone finally sorted by manner and wealth and vibe.
It was almost a decade ago when I did this, in these same houses: 17, my name scrawled in silver on a name tag, a cowboy boot and a music note glitter-stickered on either side. I was chubby from shots of sweet liquor; I was always trying to dance. By that time I had already endured my first and only attempted sexual assault of college, which did not occur within the framework of the Greek system. Raised in Texas, I found Virginia rush to be warmly effortless in comparison to what my friends were doing at schools farther south, and still it had the same brazen superficiality, the same savage efficiency: it was a process that showed you less who you were than who you wanted to be.
I keep walking. Boys apologize when we get too close. I get to the Corner, the undergrad strip of bars and restaurants, and slip into a wooden booth in everyone’s old standby bar, the Virginian. My friend Steph is there; we’re the only two non-white people in the place. She asks me how my lap around Rugby went. “Great,” I say. “All the boys keep moving out of my way.”
“I know!” she says enthusiastically. “Isn’t it funny, how nice they are?”
“I used to love it,” I say. Around us, girls are dancing on the tables.
“I still love it,” she says. “It makes it impossible to hate anything about this place in a simplistic way.”
Sabrina Rubin Erdely started looking for a touchstone travesty in June of last year. She interviewed students at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn, and soon found herself floating south down the prestige river to the University of Virginia: a tradition-heavy school, not unique in its miscarriages of sexual assault justice, but distinct in its particular intersection of public obligation and private interests, bourbon-chugging and obsessive respectability, obedience to tradition and individual intellectual spine.
There, she found a girl she’d call Jackie telling a wild, horrible story of gang rape as fraternity initiation. It was something so violent as to fall out of the unprosecutable “gray area” that many people don’t even consider troubling; a brutal crime covered up by institution (male privilege) within institution (the Greek system) within institution (an elite university).
Erdely homed in on UVA, contacting administrators who made themselves less than available. She interviewed students, who talked gamely but grew cautious after word spread about her interview practices: multiple people told me that, for example, after the reporter spent hours talking to the president of the all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four, she told him that she wasn’t going to use anything he told her. The conversation hadn’t been juicy enough, sources claim she said; he’d answered her questions “too well.” (He was reportedly the one to tape the conversation; Erdely did not.)
Erdely also made a point to interview women who had survived sexual assault at the university, who then started to realize that their stories wouldn’t make the cut. What may have been her well-intentioned acknowledgment of the poor state of consent dialogue led Erdely to create a narrative that pushed “normal” assault and its attendant nuances completely off the margins; mild-mannered and articulate rape survivors who spend 30 hours a week conducting peer education appear in the Rolling Stone article as crop-top-clad fixtures of “UVA After Dark,” saying things like, “It’s a good idea to act drunker than you really are.”
November drew closer, and Jackie’s story was the one Erdely latched onto, although she never attempted to verify it with UVA administrators once during their email exchanges, and Jackie—perhaps understanding that her story wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny—was feeling coerced. Pre-emptive meetings were called all over campus, fraternities started making tighter guest lists for their parties; the week before the article came out, students talked about it in class, making guesses as to which frat would be accused.
And then it was up, and it was a blockbuster: a graphically violent gang-rape lede as the emblem of a preppy cash-and-reputation nightmare institution full of violent frat boys and the spineless, selfish girls who loved them. The shocked UVA student body rallied in favor of the justice they didn’t know they had been denying each other. “How could we not believe it?” said Charlotte Cruze, a fourth-year sorority member. “Rolling Stone is a big magazine. She wasn’t just a random writer. She’d been here for months. Who was I to doubt anyone’s story?”
There was a Board of Visitors meeting, a rally, a memorial. The Phi Psi house was vandalized; people gathered in front of it, marching with “Burn Down the Frats” signs. (Naturally, a miniature backlash followed: male alumni yelled “Nobody wants to rape you!” at marchers and the memorial was vandalized.) The Phi Psi fraternity brothers moved into hotels. One of them, I’m told, cried to a friend, saying he didn’t know what kind of an institution he’d become part of. (He might have known, anyway: a woman named Liz Seccuro was very much gang raped at Phi Psi in the ‘80s, getting closure only when her attacker wrote her a letter decades later, confessing the details that UVA’s administration had refused to believe. One dean asked her, while her ribs were still broken, if it had just been “regrettable sex.” )
Five years after I’d left the UVA Greek system, I read “A Rape on Campus” as an outsider account about a true problem, written by someone good at cherry-picking. I knew what rape was like on UVA’s campus: common, hidden, complicated to adjudicate—just like it is everywhere else. For me, the article exposed more in the tenor of its responses: friends from college prefacing their own rape stories with, “I know this isn’t as bad as Jackie’s”; my boyfriend on the phone with his former frat brothers having heartbreakingly earnest arguments with their opinions that the piece rang as “fantasy.” After the piece came out, I interviewed one of 14 UVA women ever to convict her assailant of sexual misconduct within the school’s system—it is likely true that your UVA career would be more at risk for fudging a chem lab report in front of the wrong people than from fucking a near-unconscious 18-year-old—and a handful of guy friends responded to me with not just, “not all men” but also, “not all successfully charged rapists.”
So it took me a day or two to admit that I found many of Erdely’s details unrecognizable. No one says “UVrApe”; no one I know has ever heard the Rugby Road-themed “traditional fight song” that poetically (“fuck for 50 cents”/”panties on the fence”) separated the article’s sections. And, in the words of one sorority girl I talked to in Charlottesville: “We knew something was bullshit when she wrote that Phi Psi was a top-tier frat.”
Details aside, Charlottesville was reeling. By the weekend, the entire Greek system was suspended. (“Even now, you’re blaming women,” read an email from one sorority to the Inter-Sorority Council.) While students went home for Thanksgiving, other journalists re-reported Erdely’s work, and the story’s foundations started to crumble. Ten days after the story broke, Rolling Stone issued a retraction, and the pendulum at UVA swung the other way.
“If you’re going to deliberately avoid nuance in your article, you’re going to get a reaction to match,” an alum told me. Emails calling for mandatory reporting, automatic police involvement and the expulsion of the accused (all terrible ideas) were replaced by emails calling for Jackie’s expulsion and a formal apology to the fraternities for the suspension of their civil liberties (equally bad). #IStandWithJackie competed with #FuckJackie on Yik Yak, the anonymous, localized gossip app. Details about the story’s process came out: the accused were never contacted, the date of the incident was never double-checked, Jackie was lying, and railroaded into the spotlight on a story that now appears to be a PTSD-laced delusional flashback obscuring the details about an actual, “lesser” assault. (“Was that what rape had to look like to get everyone to care?” asked Maya Hislop, a graduate student.)
By December, “A Rape on Campus” was done for, while rape on campus was still well in sway—further concealed by the powerful, reinforced (and in practice, exceedingly rare) narrative of the falsely accused. Sympathy slid (as it doesn’t do in a vacuum) to those poor fraternity men, and the underhanded logic of Erdely’s article stuck where the facts had not.
“Was that what rape had to look like to get everyone to care?”
Now the mood among undergraduates at the University of Virginia is exhausted, cautious cynicism, tugging at the Energizer Bunny sincerity that defines student life. There is the sense that, last semester, everyone was forced by someone else to cry wolf: Jackie, Rolling Stone, the fraternities, women, the administration, the students in achingly sincere responses that now seem dissipated into the air.
“The article wasn’t right in a factual sense or a justice sense, either,” said Charlotte Cruze, across from me at a bar booth, bright-eyed and put-together after 12 hours of rush. “It was about supporting women, but she wrote all the women up as dumb and weak.” She tells me what her sorority sister sent to group text the morning of the article’s release: “She made us look like sex slaves to the patriarchy.”
Erdely did do that, and worse: in trying to expose rape at UVA, she obscured it. The story contained not just factual errors but a fundamental contradiction: a reporter trying to make a cold-blooded fraternity gang rape story both salaciously anomalous and blandly representative at once.
Jackie’s story is either atypical or typical. It can’t be both. So: which is it? What is actually happening within these fraternity houses at UVA?
It’s Friday, the second night of rush, and I’m by the huge gym next to my first-year dorms. A blue bus pulls up, the carriage that will take us all the way down Rugby Road. About 40 white male teenagers dressed like soccer dads shuffle on, followed by me, all my lipstick wiped off so I can “pass.”
It’s warmer tonight: fleece vests instead of pullovers, boat shoes instead of boots. The boys chug Monster energy drinks in the fluorescent light, check their makeshift schedules on their iPhones, and absentmindedly talk shit. The guy behind me says, “My parents only want me to join the ones with a good reputation.” Well, sure. I think about the second-year sorority girl I had coffee with that morning.
“I do want Phi Psi to have a second chance,” she said. “So I don’t want to sound rude—but, honestly, can you imagine calling your mom and telling her you pledged Phi Psi?”
I can’t. And I’ve been wondering: who is going to pledge there this year? I never knew anyone in Phi Psi, so I’ve been asking everyone I talk to what the frat is actually like. (Responses include “stoners”; “guys like my buddy Jason, but not cool”; “the least weird of the weird frats”; “engineering school”; “I have literally stolen two handles of vodka out of one of their pickup trucks but that’s all I know.”) But their big house is crowded with people every night, light blazing from the windows. The other frats have their blinds drawn.
On the bus, I turn around in my seat and ask the two guys behind me what houses they’re liking. They rattle off some letters (not Phi Psi) but say it’s a long process, who knows what’ll happen. “So long,” I say sympathetically. “At least it’s more fun than girls rush. We can’t even drink.”
“Technically we aren’t supposed to, either,” they say. I ask if enforcement has gotten any worse this year due to—we exchange an exhausted look—you know. They say no.
“Cooool,” I say. We get off the bus in the middle of Rugby; the boys disappear into the evening.
Now is a good enough time as any to mention that—although I was in a sorority and my boyfriend of many years was in a frat and five years ago I would’ve been slamming shots at Down Under with the worst of them—I am, for obvious reasons, getting dead air from every fraternity guy I have formally reached out to, even the ones I contact through close mutual friends. The exception is a fourth-year named Win Jordan, a member of Phi Delt, a frat with a dry house and an upstanding reputation. Jordan works with One in Four, the male-to-male peer education group, and has spent much of his free time in the last two years talking to dorms, frats, and sports teams about sexual assault.
What’s that like, I asked him. “Apathy is more disheartening than outright resistance,” he said.
But Jordan was optimistic about the fraternity system: the fact that it’s an enormous grouping of students who are accountable to UVA for their social functions, the fact that recent rule revisions seem to be attempting to use the organizational hierarchy to implement change. Nearly all the frats voluntarily signed a new agreement to operate under a new set of rules: no kegs, no liquor unless under strict conditions, accessible food and bottled water, three sober brothers, outside security, a guest list. (I feel certain that no frat will follow these rules to the letter in actuality, the same way that hazing and underage drinking are technically prohibited but both things are facilitated with relative formality every day.)
“Parties aren’t the most important thing about fraternity life,” Jordan says—something that many guys have said, sincerely, to skeptical me—and adds that he thinks a better way to facilitate internal change at fraternities is through actual conversations, in the hours when it’s just guys hanging at the house. “But you can’t sign a paper necessitating that into action.”
I ask Jordan whether or not he thinks there’s an open admission among frat guys that assault is a problem. He hesitates. “I’ve surrounded myself with people that believe this,” he says. “But it’s hard to say.”
“It’s hard to say,” says Charlotte Cruze, when I ask her the same question. “They don’t think rape has happened anywhere near them. They think that if there was a problem, we would know. People would tell.”
People would tell, we say to each other, about something like this:
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.
She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more —- her date, Drew, and another man —- gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men’s heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana.
“If it had been a different frat,” an undergrad girl tells me, “a place that everyone knows is aggressive—if it had been a scene with a ton of coke on the ground—if there hadn’t been those Animal House ripoff details about people who we’re supposed to believe are nicknamed ‘Blanket,’ then maybe. But frat guys from the beginning knew it wasn’t true. They knew there was something about it.”
The frat boys knew. They just knew Jackie was lying. This “sense of conviction,” buoyed in part by selfishness and outright denial, has bothered me from the minute the story came out, through the retraction, through now. “This doesn’t fit my experience,” these frat boys say.
“Great,” I want to tell them. “Then what do you have to lose?”
But anyway, regardless of motivations, the deniers were right: Jackie’s story wasn’t true. It wasn’t true in the larger sense, either, about the real ways that violence—economic, physical, cultural, sexual—is actually protected within the Greek system.
Fraternities do not have a monopoly on rapists: not at UVA, not at any frat, not even the deep Southern ones where upwards of 100 guys live in the house. (The plumbing; one shudders.) But: what the fraternity system does collect together is a group of male teenagers who enter their organization through rites of interpersonal physical violence, and who, military-style, reproduce this violence onto each other’s bodies. “Thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, [they] cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1785, about the male children of Virginian slave-owners. The sentiment there is still viable. Fraternities are worth examining as groups of rich, young, mostly white boys who were either born or bred into a tradition of getting away with things they should not.
This doesn’t mean rape, of course, but perhaps you’ll see how it’s related. When I was an undergrad, a frat boy accidentally and infamously forwarded a hazing schedule to his club sports team, an email with the order to give pledges (among other stuff) a “pill/line.” The fraternity—an ultra-rich group with a clever dues structure of having members pay nothing while in college but tithe a portion of their income later on—lawyered up, lawyered out. Students died at and after fraternity parties while I was in school: girls fell out of windows; a first-year got in a DUI car wreck during a hazing event; a Southern frat put on blackface. None of them got anything more than probation, none got kicked off campus (though UVA has disbanded some chapters since I graduated) and perhaps more importantly, none of them were effectively shamed by the student population.
What the fraternity system does collect together is a group of male teenagers who enter their organization through rites of interpersonal physical violence, and who, military-style, reproduce this violence onto each other’s bodies.
In fact, the reaction to the “antics” of frat boys is much more likely to be the opposite: a blind, cooing Southern protectiveness, one that—crucially—does not at all preclude frat-friendly women from being smart, self-determined, or in control. One year while I was at UVA, during the season where frat pledges walk around looking like someone just dog-collared them in a pile of gefilte fish and basted them with a 40, a sorority girl sent another locally infamous email in which she told girls in her chapter to carry Advil, bottled water and sandwiches to class to administer to the cute little suffering dudes as needed. “Just in case!” she wrote happily. That girl, with her strange priorities, probably pulled six figures at McKinsey straight out of school.
But in a national context, UVA’s Greek system is legitimately low-key. Sororities don’t haze or send 5,000-word emails about coating your person in Vaseline. Fraternities don’t, as they do in other places, force their pledges to beat each other unconscious. Greek students at Virginia are just trying to meet their best men and future maids of honor, just trying to find someone to smoke weed with on a Sunday; they’re just trying to follow in their grandparents’ footsteps (possible only, of course, if said grandparents are white); they’re just trying to put on a neon tank top and hook up with the best-looking rich person they can. “What’s the fucking big deal?” they might say, reading this. It’s just a good time, isn’t it? I met my boyfriend seven years ago at a sorority pre-game; he lived in a frat house and came out much sweeter than me. I, like the majority (but certainly not all) of the current and former UVA women I talked to while writing this piece, never felt unsafe at a fraternity party.
But neither did my college friend Kelly on the night that she was raped. Neither did UVA alum Jessica Longo, forcibly penetrated while unconscious in her own bed, by a guy in a prestigious fraternity who everyone jokingly called “Predator.”
“There are guys you know are creepy,” Charlotte Cruze told me. “Not just at UVA, I mean, but everywhere. There are guys whose behavior you question. But the thing about those guys, the ones who really warrant your fear—the problem that makes it so hard to do anything about them—is that they would never hurt someone out in the open. They would never, ever tell.”
And there’s the rub.
If there is a system-specific problem with the Greek system, it is not “the existence of rapists.” It’s the practices that make these rapists invisible. Many people I talked to cited a well of survivor support at UVA but little acknowledgment that the perpetrators of this violence are embedded within student society. The Greek system is not a hotbed of sexual criminals, but rather a hotbed of people invested in a tradition and lifestyle that inherently allows a tremendous amount to go unseen.
Let’s take alcoholism as an example. Imagine a frat is throwing a keg kill, in which teams race to finish off kegs of beer, either for fun or philanthropy. (People who love fraternities are always pointing to how much money they raise for charity, which they do in the way that all rich people do: through events with enormous production costs that involve heavy drinking.) So, say a team of 10 is assigned to do a keg kill for the children. All the boys (or girls!) drink 16 beers on a casual Wednesday, and only one of them is an addict, and nobody will ever know.
It’s the same with sexual assault. Multiple university studies have shown it: fraternity brothers are three times more likely to rape someone. Nearly every frat guy I know would dismiss that statistic as some sort of personal attack, because they haven’t heard anyone yelling for police, have they? Of course they haven’t. They would, almost universally, help someone who was being obviously injured. (Unless it was pledging, and the someone was one of them.) But rape in college is rarely obvious. The broad action—”hooking up with a super-drunk girl”—is so common as to be almost universal; the difference—ignoring her say in the equation—happens secretly and almost always goes unseen.
And again, rape happens everywhere. But at frats at UVA, it happens like this: Two third-year boys dance with two wasted first-year girls at a party; they take them upstairs to their respective rooms, a one-minute walk from “should we do this” to doing it. One girl wakes up proud of the sloppy, fun, brownout sex she had in a top bunk; the other girl wakes up horrified and silent, finds her shoes, slinks out. It’ll take her several weeks to even consider that the boy should have listened to her muffled stop it, please stop it. It’ll take much longer for her to understand that she wasn’t just embarrassingly wasted, that what happened to her was rape. And from the outside, who can know the difference? And who would go out of their way to try?
Which isn’t to say that UVA students would necessarily be great at discerning. At a school full of intellectually curious double majors who are genuinely embarrassed to get a B, a few major blind spots—about consent, and the ways that it can be given—may remain.
If there is a system-specific problem with the Greek system, it is not “the existence of rapists.” It’s the practices that make these rapists invisible.
When I was in college, Valentine’s Day brought a shower of white flyers plastered to columns and bulletin boards all over the school, featuring Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, with a big red heart in between. “TJ <3 Sally,” the flyers read. Most people—and granted, this was seven years ago—thought these “love notes” were sweet. Were they? Can a slave say no to her master? Can a frat boy really say with a straight face that they’re sure no one’s ever been taken advantage of in the house?
It is hard for young privileged Americans to reconcile their good intentions with the violence that has facilitated their lifestyle. Students at UVA love their school sincerely. They remember their founder as a bastion of modern ideas and forget he owned humans as property. They are history majors who’d like to focus on the positive: the gorgeous brick buildings, but never who built them, or the fact that UVA as an institution purchased slaves too. The erasure of suffering exists in every transaction of power, on campus as it is anywhere else in the world. In just weeks, UVA has found millions of dollars to fund infrastructure improvements that will satisfy stakeholders who want something to be done about “the rape problem.” The school has also spent a decade ignoring a vocal, sustained campaign for them to pay their hourly employees a living wage.
I believe that UVA students understand these fundamental inequities—if in a buried, conflicted, self-effacing way. Sorority bid day this year was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a coincidence which set Yik Yak buzzing: “The running of the white girls,” one poster wrote. “March of the Canada Goose.” As the girls ran out to meet each other, shrieking in their T-shirts and clutching matching balloons, someone wrote, “Nameless Field right now is the sound of white privilege.”
“Chill,” someone replied. “Colored girls get into sororities too.”
The “colored girls” do get into sororities, and the “colored boys” get into fraternities too—just not the ones that Rolling Stone cared to mention. The UVA Greek system is segregated, not just unofficially but explicitly. The unmarked but almost totally white system is the school’s default: the Inter-Sorority Council and Inter-Fraternity Council are the largest student organizations on campus, with no mention of race anywhere on their literature. Shoved off to a corner somewhere are the Multicultural Greek Council, for “Latin, Asian and local” fraternities and sororities, and the National Pan-Hellenic Council, for historically black Greek organizations.
No broad segment of the American population experiences sexual violence at the rates that black women do. And yet, before and after Rolling Stone’s bombshell, guess which of the above councils were never invited to the Board of Visitors meetings, to national press conferences, even to sit down for a talk? Would it surprise you to hear, after all this exhaustive media coverage, that the first reported rape at the University of Virginia occurred in 1850 and concerned three male students who took a seventeen-year-old Charlottesville slave girl out into the woods?
The students—George Hardy, Armistead Eliason, James Montadon—skipped town and never faced formal charges. The slave girl’s name is lost now, like Jackie’s real one will be.
Here is the difference between the way UVA treats its black Greek community and its white one. White sororities and fraternities all occupy enormous mansions leased to them in perpetuity for (often) a dollar per year. Black sororities and fraternities don’t have land access at all; not one of them has historically owned a house. White frats throw parties downstairs from their bedrooms and keep the good liquor under their desks upstairs; black frats have to rent spaces every time they want to to party, and they always pay security and often fork out for a staffed bar. The new regulations that IFC organizations are groaning about are nothing compared to the normal way black frats, and black frat brothers, have to carry on.
And, although the black Greek community—like the white one—is stocked with members who are actively trying to address and acknowledge sexual assault in their midst, Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn’t acknowledge them with a mention. Neither, in the aftermath, did UVA. Nor has almost anyone reporting on “campus climate” or institutional changes.
White sorority girls I talked to brushed off the idea that fraternities had any excess of power. “She wrote it up like we feel lucky to get into a frat party? Please,” one girl told me. But a second-year black student named Kiana grows quiet when I ask her what her first UVA drinking experiences had been like. Had her best option for procuring alcohol been—like mine was, and so many other girls’ is—to ease her way into a fraternity and bat her eyes for booze?
“I couldn’t get into the frat houses,” Kiana says. “I didn’t know anyone. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt once and I thought I looked nice, but then I saw other girls in tube skirts and halter tops and I realized—that’s why I’m not getting in. As a black student, you come to see what places you can and can’t access, and I was like, I guess this just isn’t for me.”
Kiana quickly adds that no one was outright malicious. I tell her: don’t worry, I understand. I, along with a half-black girl, made up the entire melanin cohort of one pledge class in my very white sorority; the experience was fine except for when girls would fall all over themselves trying to demonstrate that the two of us made them “diverse.”
I ask Kiana about her response to the Rolling Stone piece. “I immediately thought it overwrote the presence of people fighting against sexual assault all over the school,” she says, “And what made it worse was that nobody contacted the historically black Greek organizations. Nobody invited our council presidents to the conferences. We weren’t even given the chance to defend ourselves. That’s how little they cared.”
Kiana adds, “I don’t believe this piece would have had as much national attention if the woman at the center was black.”
“Nobody contacted the historically black Greek organizations. Nobody invited our council presidents to the conferences. We weren’t even given the chance to defend ourselves. That’s how little they cared.”
UVA has made national news in the last four years mostly under circumstances in which a white girl was dead or victimized. There was Yeardley Love, a beautiful lacrosse player and sorority girl, beaten to death in 2010 by her violent and sociopathic boyfriend. (The racial dimensions of George Huguely’s sentencing are not lost on anyone in either Greek system: “A white guy from DC who absolutely committed the horrible crime he was accused of, and he’s not going to be in jail for much more than 20 years,” said Charlotte Cruze, grimly.) Hannah Graham, this year, her face all across the news followed by her dreadlocked murderer. Shelley Goldsmith, a second-year attending UVA on the same merit scholarship that brought me there, dead last fall from a molly overdose in DC. Jackie, now.
There have been black girls, black women, dead and raped and murdered on the same streets in Charlottesville. Forget the national media: very few students know names like Sage Smith, the black, transgender 19-year-old who disappeared in 2012 on the main drag of town.
“We’ve had this conversation over and over within the black community,” says Kiana. “Would anyone look for us if we were missing? And we’re not sure.”
She talks about how black enrollment has dropped at UVA. She wants to help more with recruiting, but worries that she’s selling a facade. “The good impact this school has had on our education is real,” she said. “But we know the environment we’re in.”
The environment is one in which a white student will argue against affirmative action in front of black classmates by saying, “My family thinks charity is the best way to help people”—one in which, on the night of the 2012 election, two black girls went walking past the bar rented out by the college Republicans and got a cigarette thrown at them, along with a hissed “nigger.” There was no administrative acknowledgment of that incident. There has been no administrative response to the public Yik Yak rants calling the students at a #BlackLivesMatter protest “farm equipment” and “proof of why affirmative action as a joke.” Police came to the post-RS Slutwalk to keep the girls safe as they crossed the crosswalks; they came to the Eric Garner protests to police. And the extra police presence now promised by the UVA administration to protect women will likely fall unequally: a lot of it on (I’d guess) minority “townies” and black male students, who are already followed disproportionately when they walk around town.
All weekend in Charlottesville, this is what I’m thinking: it’s so difficult to get anyone with power and lax accountability—the true American dream, if we’re honest—to ever give any of it up. But the rest of the world is coming. “Rolling Stone showed how many people were waiting for proof of what they’ve already experienced,” says Maya Hislop, the graduate student. “It was the same with Trayvon Martin.” This is the thrust behind Erdely’s article, the reaction, the backlash to the reaction: Someone is finally trying to hold privilege and power accountable for itself.
But how? Not with a story that’s not fact-checked.
I sit with Hislop at a coffee shop one sunny afternoon. “[UVA president] Teresa Sullivan is trying to keep her donations, and no one has admitted, this whole time, that we don’t really know about what to do about sexual assault. No one has admitted that this isn’t a problem that can necessarily be ‘solved’ with ‘swift action,’” she says, adding, “Activism is seen as unproductive here. People don’t think of demanding things. They think: you cajole. You pay.”
She tells me about watching her undergraduate students react to the piece: the defensiveness, the anger that their school was being represented in a way that erased everyone who was actively trying to do good. “Then,” she says, “they started to realize, I have a friend that’s been through this. I have a friend that’s been through this too.”
She tells me about a sexual assault peer education group meeting that happened soon after Erdely’s article was published. “These two very young fraternity members came, and they were so lovely. They kept saying they wanted to help, but didn’t know how. They didn’t know where the problem was. They couldn’t see it.”
“I’ve reached a place of just trying to help black students,” says Maya. “That’s what I’m here for. I am involved with issues of sexual violence, because it’s interconnected—everyone wants to say that violence happens somewhere else—but with the Greek system, I think they should just disband it.” She looks around calmly. “Everything they love is founded on everything I hate.”
So what are rape survivors at the University of Virginia actually left with?
A recent alum and survivor articulates a basic hope: first, simply, that students who have been raped and assaulted are able to understand that what happened to them was wrong. She is still involved in peer education, still gets texts from students at 4 a.m. “We’re at a point where a lot of survivors can acknowledge that their assault was bad,” she says. “But not that it was wrong.”
The alum, who asked to be anonymous, tells me that she’s tired of the rhetoric surrounding this issue, the signs that sprung up all over grounds saying PROTECT OUR WOMEN. “I have felt incredibly patronized by the idea that schools aren’t doing enough to protect women,” she says. “That’s not the problem. Schools aren’t doing enough to ensure equity.”
They’re not. One change that would be effective in both a symbolic and practical sense would be if national Greek organizations relaxed the prudish facade imposed on sorority chapters: the live-in house mom, the prohibition on drinking and house parties, the rules against boys sleeping over. Top-down moralism obscures the fact that sex and drinking are not in themselves bad or shameful, and get much more dangerous when female agency surrounding those subjects is redirected to the sticky turf of young bros. (The national sorority organizations have now asked UVA chapters to refrain from participating in boys bid night, which is notoriously wild. The girls are surely still going to party, but now, prohibited from moving in obvious packs together, they will be much less safe.)
“I have felt incredibly patronized by the idea that schools aren’t doing enough to protect women,” she says. “That’s not the problem. Schools aren’t doing enough to ensure equity.”
There are also many common-sense things that could be done to improve the adjudication framework at UVA. For one, the committees that hear internal sexual misconduct allegations should be composed of people who are independent from the university, not (as they currently are) stakeholders in the school. There are bills currently in the state legislature that would require administrators and staff to report alleged assaults to the police, who would then (if other bills pass) have to report to the commonwealth attorney: these “reforms” are unwise and unwanted, and would decrease the already-small percentage of women who report their assaults. College girls who are raped don’t want to be dragged either legally or personally. They don’t want to “ruin the life” of a “good kid” when “stuff just got out of hand.” For the most part, they just want to not have to look at their rapist when they go to class.
And, though the proper procedural adjudication of sexual assault is vital, in the end it’s just disaster control. I still remember what this UVA survivor told me: that law and justice aren’t the same. Affirmative consent laws are immensely tricky. Even in a bias-free vacuum, there’s no way around the essential difficulty of one person’s word against another.
The most honest ways of addressing sexual assault have very little to do with rules and punishment. They start with early education about consent and bystander intervention, two ideas that are in no way limited to preventing rape. Sex education should be frank, practical, emphasizing safety and pleasure. (As an undergrad girl told me easily, “If you’re drunk it’s not good anyway.”) In high school, a conversation about how alcohol will alter your behavior in college. In a dream world, a gradated drinking age where students can buy beer and wine at 18 so teenage girls won’t—not that I’m speaking from experience—rip six shots before leaving their dorm rooms to create a “buzz” that will last all night. In college communities, support for your friends who have been hurt, and uncompromising disdain for your friends whose behavior might hover near the line.
Because that’s how to stop a rapist in the Greek system: not to give his future victim an extra bottle of water, but to internally cut him off. Informal community policing works in the interstices that the criminal justice system will never be able to touch.
It’s telling, still, that the best and most practical idea I heard all weekend is predicated on the worst, most misogynist impulses. From a sorority sister of mine whose actual sister—also a UVA alum—is now a police officer who works with victimized women: “Make it a taboo for frat boys to hook up with blackout girls,” she said frankly. “Make it so that it’s a safety thing for them. Make it so they will do anything to avoid a girl ‘crying rape.’ Give them a hand signal they can use at parties. Make them say, ‘Bro. Protect yourself. She’s wasted. You never know what she’s going to say in the morning.’”
The two of us looked at each other, cringing.
“I was so offended when my sister brought this idea up,” my friend said. “And then I realized it doesn’t matter the motivations that would make it work, as long as it worked. As long as it made a difference in what actually happens at the end of a night.”
It’s Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’m sitting at the top of the hill that overlooks Nameless Field, which is where the screeching tutu-and-balloons madness of sorority bid day is about to take place. The rushees are gathered in a nearby gymnasium, awaiting the final results, and their future sisters are lined up on the grass. Guys are assembling, some with popcorn, all of them in their same hungover Ken doll uniform of fleeces, khakis, boots.
Crowds of girls start pouring in from above and beside the field, crossing the road, grouped by the color of their trappings: red and green, black and gold, bright blues, dark maroons. Numbering in the hundreds, they are astonishing in a group; a fleshly murmuration, squads of them fluttering thickly down the hill in ball caps and glitter and spandex and sneakers, their long straightened hair flying behind them, the balloons they carry bopping into each other overhead. All told, this was the biggest rush in Virginia ISC history.
The bros are pulling out their lawn chairs, sipping their beer. “Bet that black girl’s a token admit,” says one of them, watching a dark-skinned girl in gold leggings run down the hill. His friend says he thinks every sorority is required to have one. They talk about the “sick blowjobs” that this one sorority is known for.
A few latecomers in tutus and rave onesies run down the hill, and a dozen guys start chanting, “Fall! Fall! Fall!” One girl actually does it—she’s tumbling head over foot. She stands up at the bottom of the hill and takes a huge bow. All of us, me included, clap wildly.
The new pledge classes come sprinting out of the building where they’ve received their bids; they assimilate into the crowd; they scream, hug, cry, chant, take pictures. It looks like drunk summer camp, and after a few minutes, the girls dissipate. The bros—lacking a formal framework to communicate with these harpies on fire with sisterhood, these girls who are so tired of being polite in heels that they’re all going to be rude as hell at bars tonight—start ambling back to their dorms and their houses. One half of the sorting has happened, the other half is still to come. Soon the frat boys will be in mixers with all of these new sisters; they’ll dress up like Navahoes and Cowboy Bros, they’ll fuck in costume, drunk in a way as to make everything a bit confusing, and if they stick with it they’ll have Greek letters on the cake at the country club wedding seven years down the line. The balloons float into the pale pink sunset. A dog is overwhelmed at the intersection and barks all the way home.
Images via AP.