Rape. The total loss of control over one’s body. Violence. Humiliation. Lack of consent. Abuse. Despoliation. Violation.
The first trial of the four young men accused of raping an unconscious woman coed has ended here in Nashville. Two of the four were on trial. The decision was guilty on all sixteen counts the two now 21-year olds were charged with. I was like many feminists, womanists, and other concerned folks on our campus and I suspect across the country—holding my breath, often unconsciously, and praying that this trial would not turn into an ugly toga-fest of blaming the victim. Well, it did turn ugly, but not in the way I feared. There was cell phone video and text evidence that captured the rape and the district attorney’s team presented this evidence in great detail. Our local newspaper, the Tennessean, made the decision to include most of the graphic details in print because the reporters and editorial team made the judgment call that readers would not appreciate the violence of the rape and the studied acts of humiliation that the young men executed against an unconscious woman. I was deeply troubled to learn that several students heard, saw, and did nothing and said nothing as the rape was going on and afterward. The jury returned a verdict after three hours of deliberation. Appeals are sure to come.
I’ve taken a day or so to take in the verdict after following the trial in the newspaper and numerous conversations with folks of all genders over the last nineteen months. This case was unfolding as I began as dean here at Vanderbilt Divinity School and it has shaped the conversations we have had across this campus and within the Divinity School. My greatest fear was that this would turn into a swamp mess of blaming the victim and racism and I have no doubt that there are some who have done exactly this. From what I’ve learned from those who know the young woman and worked to provide her support, she is an attractive, smart young White woman. From what I can tell from the pictures of the young men, three are Black and one is White and the accusations of the prosecution is that the young White man orchestrated the rape. This is not good, I thought, given the history of gender and race in this country where women and those who are seen as feminine in some manner are devalued and oppressed and darkness is feared and annihilated. And I cannot ignore the fact that one of the defendants on trial is a Nashville native. His family is here, they belong to one of the local churches, and people know him and his people. As wrong as what I think he did is, I hope that his pastor is reaching out to him and his family and his church family is providing the kind of support that does not dismiss what he did but also encourages him to stand squarely in the truth and decide to live his life with greater respect for the bodies of the women and men he will encounter from this day forth.
Something different happened in this case. As those who know about sexual violence cases are aware, the vast majority of them do not come to trial. It begins with reporting a case. Estimates are as high as 68% to 80% are not reported. The burden of proof also factors in—often there are only two witnesses to the crime—the victim and the perpetrator. Some perpetrators use the “it wasn’t me” defense although with the increased use and sophistication of DNA evidence this is becoming less rare. Finally, perpetrators use the defense that the sex was consensual. This is the most common defense and also the most difficult to defeat. Prosecutors have found it difficult to win cases of acquaintance rape if that case goes to trial.
However, in this case, the prosecution decided that it needed to send the message that sexual violence would be prosecuted and all of the resources of the district attorney’s office would be used to do so. Support services were and continue to be present for the young woman and she sat in that courtroom, facing two of her attackers (one of whom, the orchestrator of the rape, was her boyfriend at the time), for the twelve days of the trial. It is sobering that she had to be told that she was raped because she was unconscious after a night of alcohol consumption. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be told that this violence act happened to you but being brave enough to choose to look at the photographic evidence to confirm what the police are telling you. She took the witness stand and identified herself in the photographic evidence presented. She released her only public statement thus far after the verdict was announced and concluded it by saying to other victims of sexual violence “You are not alone. You are not to blame.” Exactly.
I hope that this message is heard loud and clear not only in Nashville, but also globally. It will take time to change the culture of dominance and denial, fear and disregard for the integrity of our bodies but many folks have been trying and I am hoping that more will join us to do so. What I sit with this morning is the fact that our college campuses, like the rest of our society, are not always safe spaces. Yes, alcohol figures large in this case but the problem of binge drinking and the use of drugs on many campuses is a factor but not the cause of the myriad unjust acts I see happen on our campuses—and these acts are not just confined to students. Faculty and staff can be part of the problem as well. Neither is a “football culture” or a “sports culture” the reason—these are offshoots of the more malevolent root of this problem. I deeply believe that the key factor that causes us to create and live in unsafe spaces is that the junk we have about others and ourselves—be it age, class, (dis)ability, ethnicity, geographic origin, race, religion and more—sits down in the middle of our quads, in our libraries, in our classrooms, our playing fields, in our offices, in our boardrooms. This junk allows us believe that some of us are more human than others of us. We think that power is to be used to dominate and control rather than to be shared and encourage growth for all. We allow our ignorance of one another to be seen as knowledge with caricatures and stereotypes being the morbid sentinels of our fears that ignorance often spawns. We warp hatred into thinking we are caring. The junk list goes on.
We cannot escape who we are and what we think and believe. But we can and must change when those thoughts and beliefs lead to acts that defile, humiliate, shame, or kill one another whether it is physical, psychic, or emotional. We can be and must be better than this. Not only because doing so is just. We must do so because it is right.