Politics & Policy

The Right and Campus Rape

(Getty Images)
Calling in the cops is not enough.

Editors’ Note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

It’s been a terrible semester at Mr. Jefferson’s University. Suicides. The apparent kidnapping, rape, and murder of Hannah Graham. And now this: allegations of not one but at least three gang rapes at one of the University of Virginia’s most prestigious fraternities: Phi Kappa Psi.

The latest horror story to emerge from UVA was chronicled in Rolling Stone by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Her story, filled with multiple accounts of rape and sexual assault in and around Rugby Road, the university’s fraternity row, reveals an almost unbelievably dark underbelly to fraternity life at UVA, where I teach sociology.

In the face of stories like this, the reflexive response of many on the right has been way too dismissive. We are told of a “vast feminist-industrial complex that is addicted to institutionalized panic” on such matters. In an article touching on sexual assault, George Will contends that “victims proliferate” because victimhood has been made “a coveted status that confers privileges.” And Camille Paglia inveighs against “hysterical propaganda about our ‘rape culture,’” propaganda which does not come close to capturing what’s happening most of the time on the nation’s college campuses: namely, “oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.”

I understand, and share, my fellow conservatives’ concerns about the ways in which federal and university responses to the sexual-assault crisis can trample the rights of the accused in cases of sexual assault. Both here at UVA and elsewhere, media reports suggest that students — usually men — are being suspended or expelled without due process. And the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is pushing a minimal “preponderance of evidence” standard for sexual-assault cases that would lead to even more miscarriages of justice. What’s more: Conservatives are certainly right to point out the ways in which alcohol-fueled hookups on college campuses muddy the waters of justice around cases of assault.

And yet: I cannot shake the image of “Jackie” being serially raped on a broken glass table by a fraternity gang a few hundred yards from my office at UVA, perhaps by men who have taken a class by me, especially knowing that her rapists have paid no legal or educational price for their heinous deeds. My own sense of horror and outrage is only deepened by what I found out yesterday: In my Sociology of the Family class, in an anonymous survey, seven of the 103 female students that I am teaching reported that they had been “forced into a sexual act against [their] will,” and an additional 33 of these students reported that a “UVA friend” has experienced such a violation. So, in one large class at the University of Virginia, fully 39 percent of the female students report having been directly affected by forcible sexual assault. To be sure, there are important debates about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, but UVA’s experience indicates that there are more cases of campus rape than many might expect.

To suggest, as many on the right have, that we should simply hand over the prosecution of felonious cases of sexual assault to the police, and get colleges and universities completely out of the business of addressing sexual assault, is not enough. It’s not enough because we know that all too many victims of campus rape are too scared of the social or psychic costs to risk a trial. It’s not enough because too many students and administrators actively or tacitly discourage victims from seeking justice. And it’s not enough because we know that the combustible mix of fraternities, undergraduate women, and copious alcohol consumption creates an ideal hunting ground for sexual predators on our nation’s campuses, including Mr. Jefferson’s University.

What, then, is to be done? Four steps could go a long way to reducing the incidence of rape on campus.

1) When presented with credible cases of sexual assault, college administrators should drop any posture of neutrality, such as the one they seem to have adopted at UVA. They should not present victims with a menu of choices: seeking criminal charges, pursuing a university sanction, and/or counseling. They should instead do all they can to encourage, and assist, victims of rape to press criminal charges.#page#

2) But college administrators, and faculty, must do a lot more than encourage victims to go to the police. They must also change the culture on our college campuses. We must encourage students, including the men in our fraternities, to exercise the virtues of fortitude and justice — to step in and stop abusive behavior, to call out fellow students who they think may be abusive, and to encourage the victims of and witnesses to assault to bring charges against campus predators.

3) Administrators must also rein in and redirect the party, so to speak, both in the fraternities and in college dorms. At UVA, for instance, every fall large numbers of first-year women head to Rugby Road, both because it’s the biggest social scene on campus and because it’s an easy place for underage students to get alcohol. The problem, of course, is that the combustible mix of booze, female freshmen navigating college for the first time, and male-dominated fraternities on Rugby Road can prove to be an attractive hunting ground for sexual predators. Indeed, the research suggests that women from less-privileged backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to being targeted, as was the case for Jackie, a student from a rural Virginia community, in her first-year experience at Phi Psi. UVA, and other institutions of higher education, should require proctors at these parties whose job it is to watch out for and step in to stop abusive behavior. They should also provide more non-fraternal social outlets for students looking to have fun so as to reduce the social power of fraternities.

4) Finally, colleges and universities should target what Caitlin Flanagan has called the “dark power” associated with some fraternities. On most college campuses, some fraternities have a reputation for misogyny and bad behavior. Plugged-in students and administrators usually know which fraternities treat women badly. These fraternities should be identified and reformed or shut down.

Other ideas — such as Ross Douthat’s suggestion that the drinking age be lowered to 18, so as to reduce fraternities’ monopoly on underage drinking on college campuses — are worth considering. But something must be done, not just for the sake of future Jackies, but also for the sake of future Hannah Grahams.

The record suggests that Hannah Graham’s suspected murderer, Jesse Matthew Jr., was twice kicked out, in 2002 and 2003, of Virginia colleges for sexual assault. But he was never charged or publicly identified as a rapist. And he appears to have gone on to murder Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham after assaulting women on these Virginia campuses. As Erdely suggests in her Rolling Stone story, we can only wonder if Harrington and Graham might still be living if Matthew’s predatory behavior had been addressed more forcefully a decade ago.

It’s past time for all of us who lead, teach, or study at one of the nation’s colleges or universities to take a more active role in ending campus rape, and to make sure that the likes of “Drew” — the Phi Psi ring leader who put Jackie through a living hell — don’t go on to graduate to murder.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a graduate of the University of Virginia (1992), where he now serves as an associate professor of sociology and as the director of the National Marriage Project.

W. Bradford Wilcox — W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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