Rape myth: Critics say UVA police sent the wrong message
The fall semester kicked off at UVA with troubling news: two rapes reported in the same week in late September. But additionally disturbing to some sexual assault survivors was language used in a public warning sent out in the aftermath of the first attack.
According to the September 23 email to the UVA community from UVA Police Chief Mike Gibson, sent the day of the first rape, some men reach a "point of no return," after which, such words suggest, some men just can't stop themselves.
That email offers "a seductive, almost bodice-ripper quality to the horror of rape by saying rape is clearly a sexual act, while we know it is one of violence," says sexual assault victim advocate Liz Seccuro. She's the former UVA student whose 1984 assault while lying unconscious in a fraternity house resulted in a prosecution more than two decades later, after her assailant sent her a letter of apology.
"It's utterly offensive," Seccuro asserts via email, pointing out that the point-of-no-return is widely considered a myth and further objecting to what she sees as the "laughably incorrect" suggestion that "pretty much anyone can 'turn into a rapist.'"
That part of the chief's email appears to have been copied verbatim from several websites alleging that men who rape can't resist their own urges and that many actually believe that the victim will enjoy it.
"It does such a great disservice to the thousands of honorable men who populate the University community," Seccuro says. "It's like saying I could turn into a vampire."
Gibson's missive, which offered support information, did point out that it's never the victim's fault; and UVA's top support official defends the chief even as she acknowledges flaws in the message.
"It upset a lot of people, and I understand why," says Claire Kaplan, Director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services, who says she doesn't believe that Gibson or anyone in his department intended to perpetuate a myth.
"I think this was an issue more of unintended consequence," adds Kaplan, praising Gibson for making an effort to warn and educate the UVA community while noting that she and other assault experts have offered the police department assistance in crafting future missives.
Gibson himself acknowledges the wording of the email was poor but that its motive was noble.
"The message on the recent assault was meant to be a strong signal that we are tremendously concerned about student safety, and, in particular, sexual assaults," writes Gibson, noting that "communications around sexual assault require a great deal of sensitivity– and clarity."
Having received both positive and negative feedback about the message, Gibson says, he plans to accept the offers of messaging assistance.
Regardless of the wording, the two assaults provide frightening evidence that sexual assault remains an all-too-frequent occurrence at UVA and at other college campuses around the country.
In the first publicly reported attack on a UVA student, a 17-year-old was allegedly raped after being forced into a bathroom in an apartment on Wertland Street. Two days later, September 25, her alleged assailant, 21-year-old Charlottesville resident Manneh Vay, was arrested at his home and charged with rape, sodomy, and abduction. Because that attack occurred off campus, Charlottesville Police are handling the investigation. Vay's bond hearing is scheduled for October 5 in Charlottesville-Albemarle Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, because of the age of the victim.
The second reported rape occurred between Monroe Hall and Brown College on University Grounds just after midnight on September 28. The victim in that case has described her assailant as a slender white male, approximately 6'2" with brown hair, blue eyes, and wearing a light-colored short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. The UVA police department is leading that investigation, although a bill known as Kathryn's Law, passed last year and named for another UVA rape victim, requires all campus police departments to enter into "mutual aid" agreements with local police departments when investigating rape and murder.
The rapes come just a month after George Huguely was sentenced to 23 years for the 2010 murder of his former girlfriend Yeardley Love, and occurred the same week Playboy magazine named UVA the number one party school in the country and ranked it number two for sex. That's certainly not the reputation the school is seeking, but Seccuro says a magazine ranking is nothing to worry about.
"What's wrong with responsible partying and consensual sex?" asks Seccuro. "Both are awesome."
It's other statistics that chill her.
"Rape and murder," she says, "that's a ranking to challenge."