"Rape culture" is a vague term. What is "rape culture"? How can we examine a culture that revolves around rape? Where do we find it, if it exists? What does it look like? Who is a part of it? And how can we here at Vanderbilt University (where I am a student) even define this term if we don't even see what it's supposed to be describing?
Well, it's out there, online. It looks like thin black text on a grey background. It lives in an anonymous college gossip forum.
In a thread on CollegiateACB.com (an anonymous discussion board fueled ostensibly by members of Vanderbilt's Greek community) entitled "girl that ratted," the elements that make up rape culture are on full display. The discussion within deals with a charge of rape at AEPi that was filed in February and reported on by Vanderbilt's campus newspaper The Hustler last week. This one thread seems to have unearthed all of the unsavory and dark and dangerous aspects of Vanderbilt's campus culture that persist in preventing this place from being a safe place for women.
In the thread, the original poster begins by asking the anonymous user base to post the name of the girl who "ratted" on AEPi and "got them on probation." The anger over the destruction of a way of life is palpable.
What evolves in the subsequent posts goes beyond the usual "frat-tier-rankings hottest freshman best ass Sig Nu" drivel that usually dominates the site -- the thread is a revolting mixture of speculative ad hominem attacks, victim intimidation, Greek Life chest-thumping and debate over whether or not the victim was, in fact, raped by someone at the AEPi fraternity house.
Over the course of the thread's three pages, the victim is referred to as "crazy," a "crazy bitch," "manic depressive," "psycho," "NASTY AS SHIT" and "a no good CUNT," among other things. Posters call into question her truthfulness, her mental stability and her sexual promiscuity, all while rumors swirl amongst the electronically-shielded posters. A Vanderbilt student is named in this thread, and these words and names target her. And to be clear, she is a target: a user on the second page asks for confirmation of the name posted on the first.
The focus of the thread quickly jumps to matters of real concern for its participants: the implications for AEPi and Greek Life, a focus that is maintained throughout 44 posts. The consensus seems to be that the victim has "snitched."
This repeated use of the word "snitching" in the thread implies that the victim has revealed a secret that should have been kept hidden behind closed doors -- under the rug and on floors that stick like flypaper and stink of old beer. She has tattletaled and transgressed against an entity larger than herself, an operation to keep Greek Life's stimulant-fueled heart beating while the perceived vultures circle overhead. The OP (original poster) issues a rallying cry: "we need to stick together and prevent shit like this from being ok."
She would seemingly be better served to allow the party to continue and keep her secret under wraps for the good of the Greek community. The message is: Force a smile, grab another beer, look your assailant in the eye -- and don't say a word.
It would be "fucked up" to do otherwise. The story would be enough to "get IFC to fuck all frats over."
What's especially "fucked up," apparently, is the allegation that the victim went "unprovoked" to the Inter-Fraternity Council to file a report. She wasn't caught stumbling drunkenly down frat row, brought into Student Accountability and asked to supply the name of the place where she was drinking -- in which case, according to some posters, it would be understandable to throw the fraternity under the bus. No, this victim did the unthinkable: she was assaulted and reported the crime to someone who could help her seek justice. To quote one poster, "its honestly a shame this is what the school has come to. have some integrity ladies." It reads like cruel satire.
It gets worse: The thread has a sickening self-reinforcing logic. Several posters in the thread allege that "nobody got raped" because the news would have been so major that anyone paying attention would have heard about it.
If this thread is any indication of the response that awaits a rape victim at Vanderbilt who comes forward, then it is easy to understand her keeping her painful secret locked up tight. To do otherwise is social suicide at best, and a living nightmare at worst. What incentive could she possibly ever have to make her story public? Come forward and your name will be posted, your secret revealed, and your sexual history put on display. You will be viciously ridiculed and discredited -- and there is nothing you can do about it.
And despite the debate over the actual events that occurred at AEPi on Feb. 14, a discussion of the "he-said, she-said" dynamic of sexual assault allegations is beyond the scope of this column. What matters most is the fact that this thread was created to publicly identify, shame and intimidate this victim by a community of which she is a member. It sends a public message. It says, "We know who you are and what you did, and this is what we think about it." If a victim hasn't pressed charges, does anyone think that she will now? What is this thread whispering to the other women who will be sexually assaulted during their time here?
If all of this isn't rape culture made manifest, then I don't know what is. I'm not going to waste my limited word count railing against the enabling power of anonymous message boards and social media, the insularity and cliquey-ness of Greek life, or other favorite targets of those who write on this subject but who don't pay witness to it. This single, 44-post thread is a glimpse into a rape culture that is alive and well here at Vanderbilt. It's alive in dorm rooms, Greek houses, classrooms and public spaces. It is a culture that commits rape and then comes together to shut down its victim.
"Consider yourself lucky if no one finds this thread," warns one user. Well, now no one can: the thread was deleted from the website yesterday after 8 p.m. However, you'll be able to find the entire thread saved here, with the name redacted.
It is plain now that there are groups of individuals at this prestigious, beautiful, diverse institution darkening its classrooms and hallways and making it a less safe and accepting place for the women in attendance. After all of the steps forward that Vanderbilt has taken in my four years here, this thread represents one hundred steps backward. I am deeply ashamed to share classrooms, professors and the name on my soon-to-be-printed diploma with the students represented in this cesspool of destructive gossip and self-serving intimidation. I'd like to think we at Vanderbilt, the lucky few, are better than this -- but now, I'm not so sure.