, , , , , , , , , ,

This is a guest post by Willa Hammitt Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where she is finishing her dissertation, “Gentlemen of the Woods: Manhood, Myth and the American Lumberjack, 1860-1920”. She is a teaching assistant in the Department of History and the Women’s and Gender Studies program.  Content note: this article mentions sexual assault.


“I have worn the honors of Honor

I graduated from Virginia” – :The Honor Men”, James Hay Jr, 1903


“Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school” – Rolling Stone, 2014


This morning I got an email from the President of my University, the University of Virginia. In it, she quotes Thomas Jefferson, and invokes tradition, honor and idealism. She harks back to the long history of a storied institution. “Honor and tradition inform our thinking,” she explains, but where “success is demanded as much as it is sought” we mustn’t let “idealism outweigh our reality.”

Rotunda image

You’d almost forget she was talking about rape.

We have found ourselves, at my prestigious, sheltered, Southern university quite suddenly in the spotlight, and we are not handling it well. Not well at all.

U.Va is one of the oldest public universities in this country and currently ranked second in the nation. Our campus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Jefferson founded it, Edgar Alan Poe, Woodrow Wilson and two Kennedys attended it. We claim, wrongly, to have the oldest written honor code of any American university. And we are, at this moment, ground zero in the debate over campus sexual assault.

None of this is unrelated. Our traditions, our reliance on honor, our language of quiet gentility are what reinforce toxic levels of privilege. We are a culture, and we are an institution, that protects rapists and promotes rape culture.


A quick primer on the state of sexual assault prevention on campuses in the United States: The Federal government has recently (in 2011 to be precise) begun to crack down on universities that do not adequately handle sexual assault cases under the provisions of Title IX. Title IX, a federal act passed in 1972, guarantees equal access to education for men and women, specifically banning discrimination based on sex. It’s under Title IX, for instance, that we are required to fund women’s sports at levels at least, in theory, on par with men’s.

In 2011 the Obama administration wrote what’s called a “Dear Colleague” letter, writing that sexual harassment and assault create an environment hostile to women, and that if they are not properly addressed it will be considered a Title IX violation and result in institutions losing their federal funding. The Department of Education has since made it very clear they intend to follow through. Eighty-six universities and colleges are under investigation for mishandling complaints. But only eleven are under a full, Federal noncompliance review. We are among those lucky few.

Three days ago, Rolling Stone published a scathing article criticizing U.Va, detailing the case of a gang rape that happened two years ago, and the relatively little that’s been done about it since. I won’t quote the article much here for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s more than a little sensationalist and I don’t want to get into the mire of journalistic integrity. Secondly, while I agree with the author in most of her portrayal of the University, her emphasis on pushing survivors to report, rather than on creating an environment in which reporting feels safe, troubles me. And finally, it honestly could not come with a trigger warning big enough. Please feel free to go ahead and google it, but do it when you have an hour to quietly process what you will find there.

Right now I’m not interested in talking about the article. I’m interested in talking about what happened after: what happened when the veil was lifted and we saw ourselves as we really are.  As my friend Rachel said about the article, I say too about the response, “the most shocking thing is that everyone seems so shocked.”

In the wake of the article, we all began a quick scramble to be victims, too. There was outrage from the relatively small cadre of on campus feminists that the article claimed there were no feminists here. There were outcries that we’re not all privileged, and we are more progressive than portrayed. Most of all, there was outrage from the fraternities that they were getting too much blame (on Yik Yak, a social network that allows anonymous messaging, a post reading “I became a victim when last night after exiting my fraternity house someone yelled out rapist, I’ve worked hard my 4 years here to address sexual assault and now I’m viewed as the problem” was up-voted 172 times in two hours) Everyone rushed to be the victim, because a victim cannot be part of the problem. But none of that is really the point. Of course there are feminists, and of course there are progressives. No one truly believes every Fraternity brother is a rapist. But when we coddle bruised egos and tell each other that you and I are not the problem, we are hiding from the truth.

Because we are all the problem. Only thirty-eight assaults were reported at UVA last year, out of hundreds we know to have happened. Of those, only a few went to arbitration, fewer still to any guilty verdict. A university that has expelled over a hundred people in the last twenty years for cheating has never, not once, expelled a rapist. A university that insists that every faculty member read a forty page booklet on the Honor Code and then pass a fairly asinine quiz on it to be allowed access to our email accounts provides no training on sexual misconduct whatsoever. Even if a rape were reported to most of us, we wouldn’t know what to do.

Rapes are perpetuated by a relatively small number of people – these are not, for the most part, he-said/she-said situations. For one in four women to be sexually assaulted does not mean one in four men are sexually assaulting them. So we need to take action, we need to seek justice – we need to remove criminals, serial criminals, from our midst. But there is a reason that people don’t report.

And that reason is us.

A gang rape is reported in horrific detail, and the administration responds first by addressing its reputation. Their next move was to hire (and then swiftly un-hire) a lawyer to investigate who had been a member of the very fraternity where the rape happened. When finally they took action to shut down greek life, students responded like they had been personally attacked. There is, in this reaction, a deep-seated contempt for those who don’t conform. If you cannot take our traditions, if you cannot live with our honor, perhaps you don’t belong here.

Jefferson sign

Honor, it seems to me, has become an empty word at the University. Or, rather, it has become a word loaded with meaning, but meaning we all steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. It has become a word we all use to get around discussing or thinking about “understanding”, “tolerance” and “responsibility.” Because in our vaunted language, it is meant to encompass all three. In reality, it serves to suppress all three.

When we talk about honor we do so in a culture steeped in the history of white supremacy, class privilege and gender privilege. The traditions and concept of “honor” we harken back to are those of Southern gentility – a gentility built off the exclusion and oppression of others. Anytime that privilege is unthroned, even a little, the rallying cry in response is “tradition.” When we were the last public university to accept women, it was because of tradition. When we attend football games in pearls and ties, the uniform of the privileged, it’s because its tradition.

A call to tradition is a call to protect our fun at the expense of another person’s comfort. I saw it, and participated in it, while at Oxford as an undergraduate. When balls, black tie, sub fusc, and formal halls would come under attack as practices that made the University an uncomfortable and even hostile space for people who did not come from a white middle- or upper-class background, I, too, would join in the cry that these traditions were what made Oxford so wonderful, so special. It is only in retrospect that I wonder to what extent what I really meant was, “if you can’t conform to this special place, then you don’t really belong here. It’s not on me to make room for you.”

That was hard to see as a student, as someone who enjoyed those traditions. But from the vantage point I now have, as an outsider looking in at the undergraduate life of another University whose calling card is also old-fashioned tradition and gentility, I can see more clearly that when we say we live in a “community of honor” we mean, “to question our community is to question our honor.” When we say we prize tradition, we must admit that that tradition is built of slavery, and racial, class, and gender privilege.

This all came starkly to light the day the Rolling Stone article went live. President Sullivan sent an email within the day, which opened by addressing, before any solidarity with the student who spoke up, before any responsibility for the botched investigation, and certainly before any responsibility for the crime happening on our campus in the first place, the “negative portrayal” of the University.

In a desperate attempt to preserve and increase our reputations, we rest on concepts like honor and tradition to shut down debates about privilege and diversity. I am not the first to point out that it’s hard to have your privilege questioned. And I do not pretend that this is the only problem. There are nation- wide networks that perpetuate rape culture (such as the fact that most sororities are banned by their national chapters from serving alcohol, which means men control access to parties), and there are frameworks within the university as well – we are a business, and powerful, wealthy donors cling tightly to tradition.

But there is also the way we talk about ourselves, and the words we use. When your traditions are built on a history of white supremacy, perhaps it’s time to criticize them. When Honor is a word we use to make ourselves feel better, it is merely an empty construct. Coming forward to speak through your pain and terror about assault is honorable. And there is only one honorable thing we can do in return: listen.


(This article was emended, to clarify that most sororities are banned from serving alcohol not by antiquated brothel laws, but by their national organisations, at 18:47 GMT on 24th November 2014)