Thank you to my students and colleagues. It is time for faculty to step up and be our students’ best allies in making campuses safer and more equitable learning environments. And as long as students, faculty and staff are more frightened by the capacity of their universities to retaliate than they are of their assailants or harassers, then policy reforms are largely cosmetic, designed to placate donors and keep the Department of Education at bay.
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.” Many of us have read the recent article in Rolling Stone, sickened by the brutal fraternity gang rape Jackie survived — and outraged by the University of Virginia’s institutional response. “Grab its motherfucking leg.” Not her leg — grab its. I cannot get that line out of my mind, nor can I stop thinking of a powerful scene in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. In the chapter “Chemical Examination,” Levi sits across from a civilian chemist, Doktor Pannwitz, who tests Levi on this knowledge of chemistry before deciding whether to admit him to the relatively privileged “Chemical Kommando.” Selection for the chemical commando might save Levi from the gas chamber and that other, lethal selection. Levi describes Pannwitz as “tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them” (105). Levi notes that he feels “like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” as he searches his memory for the chemical training he had received long before he was reduced to the status of an emaciated haftling. Then those lines: “From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he filled his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul. Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany” (105-6). Back to UVA. What were those young men thinking, both those who participated in the rape and those who stood by watching? What, not who, did they think Jackie was as they lined up to rape her one after the other? What made it possible for one of the rapists to approach her two weeks later and say, “I wanted to thank you for the other night. I had a great time”? Grab its leg. Perhaps if I knew how to explain the nature of that incitement — to explain the thick glass window that made it possible for those young men to sexually assault a struggling, bloodied, pleading, sobbing young women — then I could explain, at least to myself when this keeps me awake at night, what made those young men cheer each other on. Read more:
Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report
http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-20141119#ixzz3Jur4aB73 Follow up: A letter from a friend: Jackie’s story is not a hoax http://www.cavalierdaily.com/blog/on-sexual-assault-letters-from-the-community/2014/12/a-letter-from-a-friend-jackies-story-is-not-a-hoax Rape survivors feel bus-sized weight of Rolling Stone’s ‘misplaced trust’ http://america.aljazeera.com/blogs/scrutineer/2014/12/5/rolling-stone-rapeuniversityvirginiaretraction.html On Being A Journalist And A Sexual Assault Survivor Watching the disintegration of Rolling Stone’s story has been a brutal reminder of the enormous chasm of understanding that too often stands between journalists and survivors. http://www.buzzfeed.com/annawalsh/on-being-a-journalist-and-a-sexual-assault-survivor The lesson of Rolling Stone and UVA: protecting victims means checking their stories http://www.vox.com/2014/12/5/7341973/trauma-rape-allegation-uva From the Washington Post: U. Va. Phi Psi members speak about impact of the discredited gang rape allegations http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/u-va-phi-kappa-psi-members-speak-about-impact-of-discredited-gang-rape-allegations/2015/01/14/d781ad90-9c04-11e4-bcfb-059ec7a93ddc_story.html?hpid=z4
“Right now schools have reason to repress reporting and be focused on public image rather than being focused on the problem, because there is no real penalty for not accurately reporting and there is no standardized survey,” said Nancy Cantalupo.
“The new bill proposes fines of up to 1 percent of a college’s operating budget. If Harvard were found responsible, for example, the university would be on the line for $42 million — a sizable fine, but one that would probably not hurt the university’s students.”
This is a start, but only that. Each week I hear from former Harvard students about sexual assault and sexual harassment on that campus. Not one of these young women is willing to be identified by name for fear of retaliation from Harvard University and its powerful networks. Additionally, several people have written to tell me about professors who sexually harassed them, and about the futility of reaching out to the university for assistance. It is a depressing and reiterative story.
It’s a tough week when a former Harvard student reaches out to me, concerned that a professorial colleague might have raped someone else…and then she remains anonymous. I was sickened by the messages, and walked across the campus one last time hoping I would not cross paths with him. What in the world would I say? How could I have worked with him all these years and not have known? I feel deep sorrow for this young woman, and for what must be others. He was too smooth to have been a first timer. Yes, I firmly believe in innocent until proven guilty. Her level of detail, however, was painfully convincing.
I am moved everyday, emotionally and to action, by the emails I am receiving. I excerpt from an email that arrived yesterday. Thank you to this former student for reaching out, and making painfully clear what is at stake here.
Dear Professor Theidon,
You may not remember me, but I took Memory Politics with you in the Fall of 20XX. It was a formative class for me and midway through the course I declared my concentration in anthropology. I have been reading coverage of the university’s denial of your tenure. I write to say that to me, your actions serve as proof that your commitment to social justice is as real in your personal life as it is in your academic one, and that the compassion and care you showed to those in your ethnographic work does not remain in the field when you return to Cambridge.
For most of us who reach Harvard, it is the pinnacle of a life spent reading and learning, and we are supposed to be grateful and say nothing but thank you to the institution. But in my time at Harvard, I also had to learn to be a partner and a friend to women who faced their rapists in class and feared being kicked out for having mental health concerns. I ultimately lost two of these beautiful friends to suicide. I applaud your strong stance and your personal commitment to students in an academic environment where that support from a professor is rare.
My best wishes to you.
[Name withheld for privacy concerns]
In today’s New York Times, there is an article about the trial and conviction of five men who gang-raped a photojournalist, and other women, at an abandoned mill in Mumbai. According to the reporters, the men had used the mill on several occasions, communicating with one another that “the prey has arrived.”
As I reached the concluding paragraphs of this article, I was utterly perplexed. The journalist had previously introduced both Mr. Ansari and Mr. Jadhav as two of the five men who used the abandoned mill as a gang-rape site. Yet the article ends by presenting their plights, evidently to curry the reader’s sympathy. Here is the text:
“Outside the courtroom, the wife of Salim Ansari, who is in his late 20s and has two young children, reached into a cloth bag and produced a small metal box containing rice and meat. Mr. Ansari’s son Saadiq, 10, threw himself at his father’s legs, pummeling and biting him, while Shaafiq, 6, scraped bits of plaster from the wall with a finger.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mr. Ansari told his wife, taking a liter bottle of a mango drink that she had brought. “Our family is your responsibility.”
Vijay Jadhav, another of the defendants, sat on a wooden bench at the back of the courtroom and wept into a handkerchief because no one from his family had come to see him. A police officer, who guarded him, advised him to be patient.
“There is no one to see if I’m dead or alive,” Mr. Jadhav said.
What is this rhetoric about, and what is its effect? I recall a similar storyline used about the Steubenville rape case, and the television journalist who concluded her segment by asking what was to become of the young men and their promising futures in the wake of the rape they had committed. What is the perverse message being communicated about sexual violence and its legacies? Who are these journalists portraying as the victims of these bloody acts of gang rape?