She Took A Stand Against Rape: My Love Letter To University of Richmond’s Sheroes

Caption: "Your favorite lying sluts." Source: Facebook.

Caption: “Your favorite lying sluts.” Source: Facebook.

Once University of Richmond’s president, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, announced the creation of the proposed Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP), among other important changes to the university’s handling of sexual violence, it all seemed a done deal.  There was nothing more that I could add to the conversation.  But, I did see that some UR students and alumni would not be satisfied until the university had issued a formal apology to CC for publicly implying that she is a liar — a common form of secondary violence against victims of sexual violence.  I doubted CC would ever get it, and she still hasn’t.  But, it does matter.  For, such an accusation, I believe, set the stage for others to harass both survivors who wrote about being failed by the university on Huffington Post: CC and Whitney Ralston.

Source: UR Collegian newspaper

Source: The Collegian, UR’s student newspaper

CC’s and Whitney’s cars have been vandalized; someone scratched the word “slut” into the hood of Whitney’s car.  A picture of CC on a Kappa Delta sorority composite was scratched out (above). This is perhaps the most minor (and cowardly) act of harassment, but I find the symbolism extremely repulsive.  The vandal has sent the message that CC is or should be blinded and silenced.  It is perfectly indicative of what these retaliatory actions intend to do.

But, the harassing messages they have received on social media are perhaps the worst of all:

Source: Facebook.

Source: Facebook.

The above former student, Evan Silverman, also privately messaged CC and Whitney: “you both are very nasty and should just keep your mouths and legs closed.”  Not only do messages like this serve to victim-blame and shame CC and Whitney and all other survivors at UR, they also serve to punish any survivor who dares to publicly talk about it and criticize the institution that facilitates sexual violence and rape culture.

I can only wonder, would people like Evan be so bold in their harassment if the university had not implied that CC was a liar?

A Love Letter To University of Richmond’s Sheroes

For what it’s worth, I want to devote the rest of this blog post to the sheroes of University of Richmond — those women (and a some men) students, alumni, staff, and faculty who have spoken up about sexual violence.  I devoted a fair amount of this post thus far to what I have done and, more so, what I have not done (due to fear).  What appears to be indulgent is actually the context for this love letter.  These courageous individuals have inspired me to do more, or at least to break my silence.

I want to begin by thanking CC for taking the time and incredible risk to tell her story as a survivor.  This entire saga began with her 9-6-16 Huffington Post piece, “There’s a Brock Turner in all o(UR) lives.” Once the story broke, the university responded with a statement to students and alumni and another to faculty and staff, both which implied that CC lied about the mishandling of her reported rape case:

While we cannot address specifically the contentions in the recent Huffington Post commentary, given our commitment to student privacy, and we respect the right of all students to express their opinion and discuss their perspective, we think it is important for us to share that many of the assertions of fact are inaccurate and do not reflect the manner in which reports of sexual misconduct have been investigated and adjudicated at the University.

Refusing to let the university have the final word, CC responded with a second Huffington Post article: “Richmond, all I wanted was for you to say sorry. But instead you called me a liar. So, here are the receipts.”  Her detailed analysis makes plain the cold, bureaucratic handling of her case, and the many times in which the rapist violated the “no-contact” by contacting or approaching her.  CC wrote a third piece in HuffPo on 9/9/16, “Fighting for yoURself is worth it: Report. Report. Report.”

I know from private correspondences with her that this has been hard.  But, CC has pressed on to demand justice.  She continued to show up at meetings and fora held on campus about sexual violence.  And, she has publicly documented the harassment to which she has been subjected.  She has refused to remain silent in the face of being failed as a survivor of sexual violence, then of stalking and harassment by the rapist despite the “no-contact” order, then of the university’s general failure to appropriately protect her, then of the university’s implied message that she is a liar, and now of the ongoing retaliation.  I pray she remains safe, both physically and emotionally, but admire her continued courage and resilience.

Whitney also courageously shared her story on Huffington Post on 9/9/16, “The Other Girl.”  She spares no detail — the ongoing horrific intimate partner violence and terrifying stalking she experienced, the university’s inability (or unwillingness) to protect her, and the gaslighting she experienced as thinly veiled concerns about her mental health.  Unlike CC who only has a couple of months left at UR, Whitney has another year and a half — but, that has not stopped her from speaking up.  In addition to the retaliation, she is being advised (or pressured?) to transfer to another school; it’s unfortunate that the rapists and abusers are perhaps not being advised to leave, rather than forcing the survivors out.  But, anyhow, what I love is seeing pictures of Whitney and CC on Facebook, happily yet defiantly sitting atop the University of Richmond sign, with captions like “your favorite lying sluts,” and “nasty women get sh*t done!”  (obviously echoing admitted rapist Donald Trump’s comment that fellow presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a “nasty woman“).

I will go on record to say that two other brave women, both UR alumni, should be honored for their hard work to successfully propose UR’s Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention: Whitney Schwalm and Gemma Pansch.  In fact, the center should be called the Schwalm and Pansch Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention.  Or, maybe the Schwalm, Pansch, Carreras, and Ralston Center for… ok, yes, it’s a bit long.  But, it would be nice to see a building named to honor these anti-rape activists to counter the overwhelming trend of naming campus buildings after white men with ugly racist, sexist, and homophobic reputations.  I digress.

Whitney Schwalm (not to be confused with Whitney Ralston) was one of the brightest, most conscious students in my medical sociology course a couple of years ago.  Toward the end of the semester, she told me about the SARP center she and Gemma were proposing, and the associated petition.  I have a soft spot for this kind of student activism given my own efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students at my alma mater, University of Maryland Baltimore County.  But, I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for the success of their proposal, just as my proposed center was never created.  Just like me, Whitney and Gemma graduated and moved on, and the university was off the hook for having to take seriously their demands.  But, as the university became the subject of national media attention for failing CC, Whitney R., and potentially other survivors, the demand to create the SARP center was reignited.  And, Whitney S. and Gemma were back to work, though they could have wiped their hands clean of fixing a university they no longer attended, perhaps eventually sending a donation or two as alumni, but nothing more.

A few weeks ago, I met Whitney S. for coffee.  She had reached out to me and other supporters about the revival of her proposal for the center.  She decided to visit her alma mater to see friends, former professors, and attend meetings with faculty who wanted to push the university to take seriously the center.  She was already incredibly mature for her age as a student, wise beyond her years; but, she seemed even more “grown” now.  Whitney told me about her busy agenda for that weekend; she was here on business.  She seemed so focused and so determined, but, above all, so committed to make UR a better place.  I feel such incredible pride in seeing a former student’s activist work become a reality.  How many women in their early 20s (or any age, really) can say that they successfully demanded the creation of a campus rape crisis center?

Of course, others have lent their support, as well.  Countless alumni have spoken up or threatened to withhold donations to force the university to do better in supporting survivors and preventing sexual violence.  Two faculty members in the Jepson school for leadership, Drs. Crystal Hoyt and Thad Williams, created a faculty committee to address sexual violence on campus.  And, under Dr. Mari Lee Misfud’s leadership, the WGSS program has developed an 8-point plan to address sexual and gender-based violence [download it here].  Students have spoken up at meetings held by administrators, or held their own meetings to plan actions, and held other forms of protest around campus. And, kudos to Collegian editor, Charlie Broaddus (a former student of mine) and his staff at the newspaper for tirelessly covering sexual violence on campus.  For a campus with a reputation for being in a bubble from the rest of Richmond, and with little history of campus activism, I am in awe of the ways in which the UR community has spoken up to demand change.

My hope is that this saga rewrites UR’s narrative around sexual violence.  My dream is to see a student researcher conduct a historical analysis of sexual violence and responses to it (especially student and faculty activism) of the university, like alum Dana McLachlin’s analysis of LGBTQ history and culture on campus.   I want future students to know these names: Carreras, Ralston, Schawlm, Pansch, Misfud, Hoyt, Williamson.  I want us to mark 2016 as a major turning point in our university’s history, when we went from one of nearly 300 schools under federal investigation for mishandling Title IX violations to a model, rape- and rape-culture-free institution.  This could be the point at which we offer another, perhaps more pressing Richmond Guarantee: that, just as every student is guaranteed one summer fellowship for research or an internship, each student is also guaranteed safety from sexual violence in their 4-6 years as a student at UR.  Or, maybe this can be the year that we stop shrouding the crisis with silence and, instead, commit to regularly having open, frank, critical discussions about sexual violence; can you imagine something more than the obligatory 3-hour-long training on “don’t rape,” something like a “themester” of critical courses across various disciplines on sexual violence?  What if, rather than being complicit in rape culture, we equipped UR students to lead the next generation of anti-sexual violence advocacy, especially in light of the real threat that an admitted predator may be our next US president?

I can dream.  For now, I will continue to be inspired by these women and their supporters.  If they are capable to move an institution even a few inches, I am hopeful that we can move it by miles in the future.