Coauthored by Sandi Villarreal
There's a lot to be disappointed about following Rolling Stone's revelation that it misreported on an alleged rape and the subsequent mishandling of the case at the University of Virginia. But the biggest disappointment is the notion that that's what the story is about -- a single rape case.
Sure -- it was shoddy journalism. Yes -- it seems as though this individual story is not totally factual. (Aside: See how trauma affects memory.) The fact that the journalistic "scandal" got more public attention than the original story should give us pause. And the narrative that is playing out in the story's wake -- the one that says the college campus rape crisis is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the left -- is disturbing.
For survivors of rape and sexual assault, tearing apart statistics that are notoriously difficult to quantify given poor reporting rates only serves as a tool to further silence them -- to tell them their trauma doesn't quite earn the badge of "crisis" that could serve to correct a rape culture that oozes into every corner of young women's lives. Rape culture is living in a society in which your story is dissected rather than heard; it's being told your inherent, God-given value begins to disintegrate once your story gets uncomfortable and its trajectory skewed. Admitting that culture exists -- and that many of your friends, coworkers, and loved ones are part of the crisis-- doesn't diminish anyone else's story. It simply expands it.
The most recent set of statistics released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics paints a bleak picture -- females ages 18-24 note the highest rate of sexual assault and rape. While naysayers are tripping over themselves to point out that the rate is actually higher for nonstudent females than those enrolled in college, our eyes jump to the most glaring figure: Only 20 percent of students report the crime to police.
That statistic only confirms what is already anecdotally clear if you're paying attention. I, Sandi, was a rape crisis advocate near the Baylor University campus when I was a student in the early 2000s. I was on the other end of the crisis hotline and counseled survivors on their options. Within this age bracket, a full 80 percent of assaults are perpetrated by an acquaintance, which often complicated the victims' decision to report. If they did choose to report, I went to the hospital and walked them through the process of forensic examination, explaining the morning after pill, giving their testimony for the police report, filing for victims compensation, and then preparing them to wait. The reality is, these survivors are often re-victimized by a system that interrogates rather than advocates and then fails to deliver justice in a vast majority of cases. Survivors are also confronted by a culture that still thinks women by and large lie about being raped -- furthered by stories like Rolling Stone's and the Duke lacrosse case that serve as confirmation of a belief not rooted in any sort of truth. (In fact, somewhere between 2 percent and 8 percent of reports turn out to be false.)
And negative or inadequate response by campus administrators to those who do choose to report only compounds the problem.
A recent report that examined administration response to sexual abuse cases at Bob Jones University paints this in a bit more detail -- 300 pages worth. On this particular college campus, administration officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims, and in some cases, victims reported they felt the staff blamed them for the assault. Added into this case -- and indeed in other Christian schools -- is the mixed message of sexual sin and perception of rape as a sexually motivated act rather than a crime.
From the report:
"The lack of distinction between sexual abuse and consensual sexual sin has caused some victims of sexual offenses to feel impure and shamed even though they did not choose the sexual act perpetrated upon them ... Several individuals raised the complaint that BJU counselors had encouraged abuse victims to confess and repent of any 'pleasure' experienced during the sexual abuse."
Failure to recognize the sins of power and domination that influence the acts of violence against half of God's creatures is simply bad theology.
Of course, this crisis extends beyond Christian campuses. As of mid-October, there were nearly 90 federal Title IX investigations into colleges' handling of sexual assault cases.
Michigan State University is the subject of two of those open investigations. Leading up to last weekend, a number of MSU students protested the invitation of commencement speaker George Will, whose column over the summer questioned the legitimacy of rape statistics and said female assault victims claimed a "privileged" status. I, Jim, also spoke at the commencement ceremony where I received an honorary doctorate from my alma mater. It was a kind honor from my beloved MSU, and it put me in position to listen, learn, and discuss the situation. I was invited to meet with students, and I heard their passions about both racial justice and gender justice. Some had done die-ins in support of the Ferguson movement, and others stood outside the commencement to press their own university about issues of sexual assault on their campus. In my talk to the graduating seniors and their parents I said, "When students stand up and speak on racial justice, economic inequality, and sexual violence, we all need to listen." I was also able to have good discussions with the university president and many faculty members about the way forward. These campus controversies should provide the opportunity to go farther in addressing these fundamental issues of human dignity and, from our faith perspective, how we treat all of God's children.
Rape on college campuses -- and beyond -- is a crisis. It's a crisis in our schools, our workplaces, our churches, and around the world. It affects women, men, and children. And it's not one that should be diminished simply because others lack experience -- or are looking to drive some web traffic with a perceived unique contrarian perspective.
It's refreshing to see so many rally around survivors. The protests at MSU, UVA, and schools across the country are positive steps. We, as Christians, as human beings, as a society, need to get beyond the defensiveness that comes with trying to undermine others' experiences or hard statistics. Because for sexual assault survivors, one of the most important things you can say is "I believe you."
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book,The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis. Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor & Chief Digital Officer for Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi.