In 2012, a student was violently raped by a group of fraternity members at the University of Virginia, a story that was recently re-told by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone. [UPDATE: SEE BELOW] Erdely’s description of the rape culture at UVa, and the reaction to the story, is especially upsetting because it shows how universities, these beautiful institutions where people have the chance to discover and maybe even contribute to some of humanity’s greatest achievements, can tolerate and protect the worst of humanity as well.
In response to the story (and notably, not to the rape allegations, which the University was aware of before Rolling Stone broke the story) UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan announced that she was suspending all fraternities until the spring semester. In that letter Sullivan wrote:
At UVa we speak in idealistic terms: honor and tradition inform our thinking, and balance our daily actions. And it is easy here, where success is demanded as much as it is sought, to let our idealism outweigh our reality. Jefferson, as he always does, provides a compelling backdrop:
It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.
It’s telling that Sullivan chose to reference Thomas Jefferson. Erdely describes the central role of Jefferson in the campus culture of UVa:
Thomas Jefferson, whose lore is so powerfully woven into everyday UVa life that you practically expect to glimpse the man still walking the grounds in his waistcoat and pantaloons. Nearly every student I interviewed found a way to mention “TJ,” speaking with zeal about their founding father’s vision for an “academical village”.
As Erdely reports, when a student was raped in the 1990’s, she was told that better lighting on campus would “ruin Jefferson’s vision of what the university was supposed to look like,” by a UVa administrator.
“It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”
Among the (many) steps that UVa’s campus community must take to repair the wrong of rape-culture on campus, one change that must be on the list is scaling back all the TJ talk. Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. If UVa is serious about changing their longstanding tolerance for rape, they should start by withdrawing any idolization of their founder- who not only owned hundreds of people he also had an ongoing sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, whom he never freed.
Although there are many definitions of rape and sexual assault, let’s agree that sex without the presence or possibility of consent is rape. Under the institution of slavery, people who are legally enslaved do not consent to work. They work because they are implicitly or explicitly threatened with death or violence, and those threats violate slave’s rights. In other words, slavery is forced or coerced labor. Similarly if a slave owner has sex with a slave she cannot consent, because if she refuses (just as if she refused work) she could be killed or otherwise assaulted and she would have no legal rights. In other words, sex with a slave is forced sex, which is rape.
That’s why Thomas Jefferson was a rapist.
It seems strange to me that I need to spell this out, but when the President of UVa approvingly quotes Jefferson in a letter about rape culture apparently it needs to be said.
If people in higher education want to show that they are serious about condemning rape, then they should stop glorifying known rapists.
I realize that it will take a lot to change rape culture on campuses. That’s why it’s especially demoralizing that Universities are unwilling to even take a small steps toward sending the message that powerful rich men cannot get away with raping women. For example, maybe universities could start by removing famous alleged rapists from University boards and taking down the statues of Rapists from American History.
No one today even knows what Sally Hemings looked like, but at UVa, Jefferson is everywhere.
Edit: Rolling Stone issued a statement that calls into question the details of this part of Erdely’s story (more here). Still, UVa, like other universities, struggles to address sexual misconduct on campus (see this video), so the University’s endorsement of Jefferson is remains troubling.