Friday, December 5, 2014

Exploiting Sex at UVA and Beyond

It sounded true.

We've all heard anecdotal accounts of how lusty for sex college boys are.  We've seen news stories about date rape.  We know that a lot of young women go to college to major in "Mrs." (they're searching for the most promising husband they can find).  And these young women have what lusty college boys want.

So when Rolling Stone magazine shocked its readership with a lurid account of gang rape at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, it sounded true.  Even if it seemed to confirm everything we believe to be wrong about morality and gender stereotypes amongst today's young people.

And it wasn't just UVA letting an insidious rape culture thrive under a public face of progressive gender equality shown to prospective students and their parents.  Sure, UVA administrators temporarily shut down Greek life as part of their response to Rolling Stone's article, but protests against the rape culture flashed across the United States at colleges and universities of all sorts.  It seemed as though everybody was just waiting for a victim to come forward with her story that would validate everything everybody thought they knew about college boys behaving badly.

And the people who enable them.

And you know what?  There probably still is an insidious rape culture within American higher education.  But, as it's turning out, the Rolling Stone article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, may not have exposed it after all.  Instead, it may be exploiting the problem - just as rape exploits its victims.

As UVA officials and other journalists began researching the allegations Erdely chronicled for Rolling Stone, her account began to unravel.  Today, Rolling Stone officially apologized for not fact-checking enough of Erdely's story.  The credibility of everybody associated with publishing that article is currently in tatters.

Turns out, significant discrepancies exist between the facts as told by Erdely, and some facts as they actually are.  There was no social function of any kind at the specific frat house on the night in question, nor was there any pledging going on, as the rape victim recounted.  No frat member or pledge, with the name given by the rape victim, seems to have ever existed.  Nor is there an exterior stairway on the frat house, as the rape victim mentioned.

As the Washington Post has researched Erdely's reporting, they've interviewed several friends of the alleged victim who themselves now doubt her story.  The fraternity has vehemently defended its honor.  Although Rolling Stone, for its part, had been defending their journalistic ethics in corroborating and running Erdely's piece, even the magazine now is backtracking.

Where the major players in this saga go from here has yet to be determined.  Perhaps the victim can muster enough courage to come forward herself, without her alias, and tell her story without risk of any artistic license by Erdely.  If something really did happen, perhaps the perpetrator himself will muster the integrity to own up to his crime.  But of these two scenarios which could restore the public's confidence that sexual abuse is a problem in collegiate America, the second is the most unlikely.  Because, at this point, it's become easier to believe something didn't happen.

And that has advocates for sex abuse victims worried.

The "he said - she said" that haunts so many accusations of rape remains one of the toughest dilemmas to overcome when addressing the issue of sex abuse.  Witness the parade of women currently coming forward and accusing legendary entertainer Bill Cosby of rape, and the public's confusion over whom to believe.  With each new self-professing victim, it's as easy to feel sorry for Cosby because of the wholesome image most of us have of him.  Yet what else would motivate so many women to go public now?  They're not going to get any money out of Cosby.  They won't see him go to jail for what they say he did to them - the statute of limitations have expired.  Where's the proof?

Cosby's accusers say little proof existed back in the day; that's why they didn't go to the police after they say they were abused.

For the victim in Erdely's story, there isn't much concrete proof, either.  Or, at least, she waited too long before seeking professional assistance.  Indeed, one of the main points of the article is that when the young lady finally sought direction from UVA's administrators, the people who should have helped her actually tried to steer her away from involving law enforcement in her case.  Ostensibly, this was done to protect the schools' reputation.  But now that significant questions have arisen regarding whether this particular gang rape took place at all, how accurate are the accounts of UVA's administrators prioritizing their employer over their student?

Is Rolling Stone's article crying wolf?  Whether it is or not, it's at least indicative of how angry many women are at what they perceive to be an incessant domination by men of sexuality and how sexuality is conducted between men and women.  While some men demonstrated against the alleged rape culture at colleges across the country, most anti-abuse activists before this story, and now in the middle of its aftermath, are women.

If this story is a gross distortion of what really happened at UVA, then these advocates will have a lot of work to do in making up the ground they'll lose in the minds of men - and the women who think they love them - who may belittle the whole topic as much ado about nothing.

On a side note, it's interesting to note that in Sweden, some remarkable success has been achieved in reducing prostitution by criminalizing the male side of it, but decriminalizing the female side of it.  In other words, men who try to pay for sex can get arrested, but women who sell themselves can't.  According to gender experts, what Sweden has done is level the playing field between males and females by recognizing that prostitution is inherently a power play by men over women.

What Sweden's novel prostitution laws will do to the crime of sexual abuse in that small country remains to be seen.  But it's worth acknowledging that the same problem we assume existed at UVA - sexual debauchery and date rape run amok - is at least partly due to our society's persistent view of women as objects, playthings, and somehow inferior in their rights to expect sexual respect.

Which, of course, is a huge topic all on its own that goes far beyond the "he said - she said" of Rolling Stone's article.  But still, doesn't it sound true that one of the reasons rape hasn't gone away in our culture lies in our society's paternal provincialism when it comes to how women look, act, and think?

Many Americans were all too eager to jump on the anti-UVA, anti-fraternity, anti-lusty-college-guy bandwagon after this controversial Rolling Stone article.

But how many of us will second-guess the ways we're complicit in our society's devaluation of women as sexual objects?  Whether we're Christian or Muslim, conservative or liberal, New Yorker or Texan, black or white, male or female?  How much of it is really somebody else's fault?

We thought the claims against UVA sounded true.  Meanwhile, is it easier to rationalize away whether we might play any role in sustaining an environment and mindset that devalues women?

History tells us that Thomas Jefferson, who founded UVA, sired more children with his slaves than he did with his wife.

Wa.  Hoo.

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