The Rape Culture Problem at UVA

1 Dec

University-of-Virginia-RotundaIf you haven’t read the Rolling Stone article entitled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” do so. The story outlines the horrifying gang rape of a freshman, Jackie, at the University of Virginia in 2012 and the response of the University following her rape. It’s a heartbreaking, yet necessary read, and points out some major flaws in how universities in the United States handle rape and sexual assault.

Call me radical, but UVA clearly has a rape culture problem. The idea behind rape culture is that violence, aggression, and sex are so normalized that we have fostered a culture that also normalizes rape. As quoted in The Gendered Society, Allan Johnson describes that gendered violence “…rests squarely in the middle of what our culture defines as ‘normal’ interaction between men and women” (Kimmel 2011: 398). This allows rape to be shoved under the rug and effectively ignored, while maintaining our misconceptions about the bastions of education and elitism (ahem…UVA) that we hold so dear. Worse, even, we have normalized rape in a way that permits it to continue.

As sociologist Michael Kimmel (2011) puts it, “The reality is that rape is committed by all-American, regular guys” (398). Rape is so normalized by rape culture that no one would think that an “all-American, regular” guy would rape another human being. This is especially true on college campuses where, as the Rolling Stone article puts it, “…the hedonistic fun of college, bearing every expectation of booze and no-strings sex. A rape heralds the uncomfortable idea that all that harmless mayhem may not be so harmless after all” (Rubin Erdely 2014).

Studies show that less than 8% of rape allegations are false (Rubin Erdely 2014), and yet how often have you heard someone whisper that “that girl is a liar?” Or that a woman was asking for it because she was downing drinks and dressed like a slut? This, my friends, is rape myth. Rape culture is fueled by it. Rape myths are the stereotypical, culturally constructed, often untrue notions about rape in our society. In the end, rape myths serve as reasons why victims of sexual assault are deemed responsible for their fates and blamed by their peers (Perry 2001). Rape myths are statements like “She was asking for it,” “It wasn’t a legitimate rape,” or, “She wanted it.” Rape myth, then, becomes an intricate part of victim blame, and, especially in the case of UVA, it leads to denial that the issue even exists on campus.

Widespread acceptance and belief in rape myths is why students at UVA think that the stories shared in the Rolling Stone article are “misrepresentative” of the culture at UVA. People seem upset about how the article portrayed UVA, based on the “stereotypes” presented, and say that what happened is awful, but that the article was “sensationalized” and “blown out of proportion.” They say that the Rolling Stone article didn’t truly show what UVA is like. Some people have even said that the whole ordeal was just made up. Sorry to burst your bubble but…

Much like blaming the victim, denial that the Rolling Stone article is truly representative of campus culture at UVA is a defense mechanism used to protect individuals from feeling like the same thing could happen in their own lives (Grubb and Turner 2012). It’s very much a control thing. People don’t like to believe that the world is a chaotic place and they want to believe that people deserve the bad things that happen to them (Chancer 1987). They accept rape myths, by denying that the rape ever occurred or by blaming the victim, so they can control a situation that seems unsafe and out of their control (Brownmiller 1987). As Erdely Rubin (2014) points out in the Rolling Stone article, “Shrugging off a rape or pointing fingers at the victim can be a self-protective maneuver…” Students and community members at UVA want to believe that their bubble is still safe. However, according to Kimmel (2011), “…the United States has the highest rate of reported rape in the industrial world” (397). Sorry to burst your bubble, but it was never really completely safe in the first place.

I’m not writing to make you hate UVA. I grew up in Charlottesville and love it here. However, if I wrote that rape didn’t exist, that it didn’t happen here, or that this was the safest place to be, I would be doing the world a complete disservice. Bad things happen here just like everywhere else. This is a cultural issue, not just at UVA, but at colleges and universities nationwide. Luckily, the administration at UVA is slowly responding to the call to action, but the response by one scorned university isn’t enough. Every university needs to take a “no-tolerance” stance on rape and sexual assault, and everyone needs to take part in ending a pervasive culture that permits rape to exist. “Yes means yes” could take the country by storm.

To start, let’s hold the people actually responsible for rape accountable for what they’ve done. Like say, rapists? Radical, right?



Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Chancer, Lynn S. 1987. “New Bedford, Massachusetts, March 6, 1983- March 22, 1984: The ‘Before and After’ of a Group Rape.” Gender & Society, 1(3): 239-260.

Grubb, Amy and Emily Turner. 2012. “Attribution of blame in rape cases: A review of the impact of rape myth acceptance, gender role conformity and substance use on victim blaming.” Aggression & Violent Behavior, 17(5): 443- 452.

Kimmel, Micheal. 2011. “The Gender of Violence.” Pg. 381-407. The Gendered Society. Michael Kimmel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Barbara. 2001. “Doing Gender and Doing Gender Inappropriately: Violence Against Women, Gay Men, and Lesbians.” Pg 417-440. Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The New Basics. Ferber, Abby, Kimberly Holcomb, and Tre Wentling. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rubin Erdely, Sabrina. 2014. “A Rape on Campus: The Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Rolling Stone. November 19, web.


Amelie Rives, a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, is a recent graduate of Roanoke College. Her interests include feminism, gendered violence, and masculinity.

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