There's an emotion missing in the recent Rolling Stone story detailing a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia: Anger.
Jackie, a straight-A freshman from a small town, attends a raucous frat party on a "date," the story tells us, with a handsome older student. When he takes her upstairs, seven other frat boys are waiting, to hold her down and take their turn, while the man she trusted actually cheers them on.
Reading Sabrina Rubin Erdely's blistering story, you want to shout at them, to make them stop, to make them pay. Yet from nearly everyone within the story – friends, parents, university officials – there is a disturbing sense of complacency. When Jackie calls her friends that night for help, the story describes how the group soon concludes that silence is the best course. They are depicted as being more worried about their social standing than Jackie's fate.
When Jackie eventually approaches the dean who oversees the university's sexual-misconduct board, we're told how Nicole Eramo "calmly laid out her options" – from filing a criminal complaint to seeking an "informal resolution" during which Jackie could share her feelings with her abusers, and, as a punishment option, they could be directed to get counselling. Perhaps Dean Eramo, much loved by students, was fuming inside, and she does follow up her meeting with a supportive e-mail. But there is no sense of urgency, no indication that a university official made a third-party report to police – one that wouldn't identify the victim but create a record of the incident. No safety alert went out to protect potential victims, even after there were rumours of other gang rapes at the same fraternity. Even Jackie's mom, in the story, seems to accept too easily her daughter's vague explanation of "bad experience at a party" for why she's suddenly failing her classes and bursting into tears at an official meeting to discuss her marks.
The University of Virginia is now in clean-up mode. The police are investigating the assault. All 30 campus fraternities have been suspended until January. The president has apologized, saying she felt "numbness" and then "anger," upon reading the story.
Perhaps some good will follow, but it's all too late. Where, when it mattered most, was the outrage, on Jackie's behalf? This isn't about a sober morning-after realization that the "yes" of the night before wasn't enthusiastic. The allegation is a premeditated gang rape. So where is the person empowering Jackie to demand justice for herself? Where is the sense that someone was there fiercely protecting her legal and moral rights to be heard?
Step by step, the story is evidence of the permissive rape culture that existed at the University of Virginia, and, as similar cases have shown, in society at large. Jackie's friends were willing to shrug off a brutal crime because they desired the acceptance of the criminals. Dean Eramo – and the other professors aware of sexual-assault complaints on campus – may have had little power, and speaking out might have cost them their jobs, but how could they expect any 18-year-old to come forward if they were silent themselves?
A professor at UVA published an essay Tuesday about the female students who kept telling her about being sexually assaulted on campus. As she wrote in the Slate essay, she is angry at the alleged rapists, the university, her "willfully ignorant" colleagues. But why wasn't she angry enough to do something earlier?
It is incredibly difficult to counsel a teenager away from home who is hesitant to lay an official complaint and just wants her first year of university to go back to normal. What do you tell her? Certainly not that everyone will believe her, or that no one will ask what she was wearing or how much she had to drink. You can't guarantee that coming forward with an official complaint – even one found to have merit – means she will never again encounter the perp on campus, or that she'll have her day in court (and that it won't be a brutal, soul-destroying experience).
None of that would be true. And in a society like that, no sexual assault victim can be forced to come forward. No one's story should be told for them.
But in our care to protect the victim, we also need to be careful not to patronize her, to mute her desire for justice. We can't stress the risks of speaking out without discussing the possible benefits of fighting back. And no matter what the victim chooses, it doesn't let us off the hook, to do everything we can to help her, and prevent more victims.
You might tell her this: that being a victim doesn't make her weak. That you respect her ability to make a decision that is right for her. That she has every right to feel every possible emotion, including anger. That you're not sitting here holding her hand, presenting her with every option, because you're secretly hoping she'll take the easiest one, and let things lie. That if she decides to speak out, you will not leave her to do it alone, and you will find others to also stand beside her.
From former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, now charged with four counts of sexual assault, to Parliament Hill's current sexual-assault scandal, the conversations often focus on parsing titillating details. (Who did what to whom? Who came forward when?) Hopefully, on the other side of this discussion, society will get better at both supporting the victims of violence and preventing assaults in the first place. That will require more bystander training, so friends aren't complacent themselves, so they don't reinforce victim-blaming. It also requires improving how complaints are handled to justify to victims why they should risk coming forward, a difficult job given how few complaints to police result in charges, and how fewer still lead to convictions. Perhaps, in court, that means a legal representative to interject exclusively on behalf of the victim, an approach practised, for example, in Norwegian sexual-assault trials.
It certainly means clearer guidelines at universities so the what-happens-next questions are defined, as well as trained staff, free of conflicting interests, to advise complainants. When victims have no clear guidance, as Erdely points out, "the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing."
It's hard to heal while doing nothing, which is perhaps why Jackie bravely told her story. But the story ends on a disheartening note. "Everything bad in my life now is built around that one bad decision that I made," Jackie says, who is still working up the courage to file an official police complaint. "All because I went to that stupid party." Even now, she is still blaming herself for what happened. That should make everyone who cares for her – and everyone who reads about her – shake with anger, the kind that apologies alone won't quell.