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.