How sexual abusers hide in plain sight: What Rolling Stone's blockbuster UVA rape exposé really tells us

Sure, the conversation on consent has evolved in recent years. But we still can't stop euphemizing rape

Published November 26, 2014 12:01AM (EST)

  (AP/Steve Helber)
(AP/Steve Helber)

Rolling Stone’s Nov. 19 investigative report “A Rape on Campus” is one of the best articles I wish I’d never had to read. Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article, which opens with a breathtakingly cruel act of anonymous gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house, turned my stomach. As it unfolded into a litany of similar stories, most of which resulted in deliberate head-in-the-sand reactions on the part of the university, it made my temples pulse with secondhand anxiety. And as the ending revealed that, as of press time, no justice had been served on the part of women raped at UVA, I was furious.

And the story was exactly the bombshell it was intended to be. Within hours of its publication, current students and alumni wrote in to share their own stories of assault at UVA and echo Erdely’s portrait of institutional apathy. On Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that he had spoken with university officials and would be urging that a full investigation be carried out. University faculty spoke out strongly against administrative inaction on behalf of victims, and on Saturday organized a “Take Back the Party” rally that emphasized safety and consent for all students. Saturday was also when UVA president Teresa Sullivan suspended all campus fraternities until the beginning of the spring semester — at which time, her memo noted, there would be serious discussion and plans to address sexual violence on campus.

The spring semester, it’s worth noting, begins Jan. 9, so the suspension — amounting to about six weeks, the bulk of which is winter break — seems ornamental at best. And the rest of Sullivan’s posturing can’t help seeming deeply disingenuous in light of the portrait of her in “A Rape on Campus.” In it, she seems to suggest that having recently hosted the nation’s first-ever summit on sexual assault for college administrators equates with UVA itself being completely transparent about its own history of campus assaults. Yet, as Erdely notes, “her most frequently invoked answer to my specific questions about sexual-assault handling at UVA – while two other UVA staffers sat in on the recorded call – was ‘I don't know.’” Rolling Stone, as well as the students, faculty and alumni who have spoken out, describe the university and its top brass as being far less concerned with the safety and health of assault survivors than they are with the school’s reputation and funding — something that’s certainly not unique among institutions of higher learning. And the fact that Sullivan and other UVA administrators were happy to let the university’s clearly subpar protocol on sexual assault stand, only showing concern once a national magazine blew up their rarefied spot in front of a mass audience? Forgive survivors if they aren’t delivering a standing ovation. It shouldn’t take a public shaming for a school to value the lives of rape survivors.

And the same goes for mainstream media. After all, last week’s other big rape story — and the fact that this is even a sentence that can be written says so much about where we are — is that of Bill Cosby and the career-spanning allegations of drugging and rape that have followed him around for almost a decade. Why the story only caught fire in the past several weeks isn’t totally clear: Was it because the new allegations unfolded in the realm of social media, where they couldn’t be covered up as tidily as they once had been? Or because Hannibel Buress — the actor/comedian whose stand-up act lambasting Cosby as “a rapist” was the catalyst for the media attention — was finally getting the attention he deserved, independent of his Cosby material? Or was it because of the new, hefty biography, "Cosby: His Life and Times," by Mark Whitaker, which notably omits the civil suit filed against Cosby in 2006? Or because Cosby was poised to entertain a whole new generation with a soon-to-debut NBC sitcom and a Netflix special? (Both have since been canceled.)

Or — and this may be a reach, but let’s consider it — is this cultural moment simply beginning to emerge as one wherein people who stand against rape, whether with a mattress strapped to them at Columbia University, or on a sidewalk in Oklahoma, can count on a critical mass of people to actually believe their words?

After all, the context in which we understand and talk about sexual consent has changed dramatically since 1969, when Bill Cosby joked about drugging women in comedy routines like “Spanish Fly.” It’s changed since the 1980s, when women at UVA told Erdely that no one used the term “rape” to describe what regularly happened in frat houses, instead employing a euphemism — “bad experience” — that survivors and administrators deploy to this day. But one of Cosby’s victims, Andrea Constand, first filed a police report against the comedian in 2005, and her terms were unequivocal: She alleged that a year earlier, when she was the operations director of women’s basketball at Temple University (where Cosby sat on the board of trustees), he drugged and raped her. When no police charges were pursued and Constand undertook a civil suit, 13 other women, from all across the country, agreed to testify as part of it.

That sexual assault hides in plain sight alongside other horrors like pedophilia and domestic abuse is not breaking news; just ask the victims of Roman Polanski, Chuck Berry, Gary Glitter, Sean Penn and other famous figures whose criminal pasts are more often than not reduced to “controversies” and biographical footnotes. Ask the many students who watch their attackers stay on campus, graduate, and thrive while they themselves drop out or  incur outsize debts, from both legal actions and from transferring to schools where they can start fresh.

The problem is that while, as a culture, we’ve learned a lot about what consent is and isn’t over the decades, we clearly haven’t learned enough to consider rape enough of a crime to, you know, matter, especially when the big business of media and higher education is at stake. David Carr, writing in the New York Times on Monday, pointed fingers at a number of media figures — all of whom happen to be male, including himself — for glossing over Cosby’s past.

My job as a journalist was to turn down that assignment. If I was not going to do the work to tell the truth about the guy, I should not have let him prattle on about his new book at the time. But I did not turn it down. I did the interview and took the money.

Rape is a phenomenon that thrives in our capitalist, celebrity-driven culture precisely because its survivors can plainly see just how little they are valued. That makes Carr’s piece seem pretty self-aggrandizing, since, presumably, he would have just kept on keeping mum about all that inconvenient rape stuff had Buress’ Cosby jab — which he’s been doing, by his own account, for more than six months at various comedy venues — not gone viral. At what point would Carr and the rest of the media had its reckoning? Months? Years? Never? Had the University of Virginia not been exposed in the pages of Rolling Stone as unsafe for students and unjust for survivors, would anything change? Will anything change?

The depressing lesson of This Week in Rape is that too many people — and far too many institutions — only choose to pay attention to the crime and take it seriously when they stand to lose something valuable to them, whether that’s money, reputation, credibility, happy childhood memories of Cliff Huxtable and his wacky sweaters. No matter how the conversation on consent has evolved, it’s proof of how far we still have to go to gain some semblance of justice for survivors.

By Andi Zeisler

MORE FROM Andi Zeisler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Cosby Cosby David Carr Gender Rape Rolling Stone University Of Virginia Uva