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UVA’s Rape Problem Will Only Be Solved When the ‘Virginia Gentleman’ Evolves

7 minute read
Melanie Howard has written for SELF, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other publications.

When you send your children to your alma mater, that shared experience becomes a bond. I could not wait to share the University of Virginia with both my children; the serpentine walls that weave under graceful magnolias behind the lawn, the white dome of the Rotunda gleaming against a blue autumn sky, the sugary warmth of a grillswith (two grilled glazed donuts topped with vanilla ice cream) devoured on The Corner in the wee hours of the morning, and the festive throngs of young men and women on Rugby Road on Friday nights.

No one wants to share a tradition of predatory violence against women. No one wants to share a legacy of rape.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of students who have walked across the university’s historic Lawn before and since the day I arrived in September of 1975, their memories of UVA aren’t tainted by the specter of sexual violence. That’s important to say. Most of the young men who attend or have attended the university would never condone or be complicit, let alone participate in anything remotely close to the horrors depicted in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” article last week.

But we alumni and students who want things to change must honestly examine what about our culture has enabled a predatory few to prey on young women, apparently with relative impunity. It’s not enough to say that Florida State and Notre Dame and virtually every other university in the country has a rape problem, even it if that is also true. This is our rape problem—that of UVA alums and students—and to understand it you have to understand UVA. You have to understand the legend of the Virginia Gentleman.

Virginia’s legacy as an all-male domain, which still colors fraternity-dominated social life, hasn’t been really examined in this context. Back to 1975 for a minute. The UVA I enrolled in had only been co-ed for five years, and although 42 percent of my class was female, the majority of the total student body was still overwhelmingly male. At least during the week. On weekends fraternity parties were flooded with women from the “suitcase colleges” such as Mary Baldwin, Hollins, Mary Washington and Sweet Briar, which had been the social tradition for decades. This was not the healthiest dynamic: men basically marinating in testosterone all week long, getting wasted on the weekend and having girls delivered to their doorstep. Even with women now on campus, they were in control of the social scene.

I quickly heard never to go upstairs at a frat to use the bathroom alone, and to clear out by midnight. (I took the lyrics to the fight song “never let a Cavalier an inch above your knee” and so on as a musical warning.) There were rumors that a gang rape eerily similar to the one recounted in Rolling Stone had occurred at one frat. Even five years into co-ed-ness, some male students—mostly southern legacies—were still not happy to have women on the Grounds as peers rather than weekend dates. Many of these guys proudly declared they would never date “u-bags” as they called us.

These self-styled Virginia Gentlemen were a minority, obviously. But a highly visible minority, powerful because they knew the ropes; what to wear, what to drink, how to do “the pretzel” to the Four Tops without falling on their faces, and what frat to join. Their hereditary privilege endowed them with insider knowledge which in turn resulted in yet more privilege. This male social core occupied the top strata, which at other schools is reserved for star football and basketball players. They supposedly harkened back to an era of antebellum courtliness that not only didn’t exist in 1975, but had never existed (case in point, in 1840 drunken students shot and killed a professor who tried to curtail their revels).

The Virginia Gentleman thing could be charming. Coming from an industrial-sized 1970s public school, as I did, it was kind of a thrill to have a date who wore a coat and tie, opened the door for you and knew how to dance without pointing his finger at the ceiling and gyrating like Disco Stu. But those boys lived in an insular world, and I believe that insularity, coupled with a sense of entitlement, and fueled with excessive alcohol, enabled our particular version of the widespread college sex assault problem. They believed their own myth, and that hubris lead, repeatedly, to tragedy.

Ever since the Rolling Stone story broke, I’ve heard people say that things haven’t gotten any better at UVA over the past decades. I have to disagree, despite the terrible incidents reported in the article. Full disclosure: I have a daughter at UVA who is a feminist and a poet and not involved in Greek life, but I have a son who is a member of one of the oldest, most established Southern fraternities. His fraternity is far different from the fraternities I remember. For one thing, the chapter invites parents to many events at the house, and participates in the One in Four men’s program, which educates men in rape, and in rape intervention and support of women survivors. Despite this, my son is now afraid people see him as a rapist just because of his fraternity affiliation. That is unfair. Backlash and protests where bricks are thrown through frat windows aren’t the answer, and aren’t going to stop campus rape.

I had a frank talk about sexual assault on campus with each of my children before college. I gave my daughter all the same warnings I’d heard, along with an admonition to always travel with friends and not drink too much. With my son, I made it perfectly clear that just not being the bad guy isn’t enough. It is his duty to intervene, to assist and, when necessary, to summon the proper authorities. I think that’s how our entire university culture needs to redefine the mythical ideal of the Virginia Gentleman. He’s not some imaginary Southern aristocrat riding around on a horse with a plume in his hat. He’s not the guy with the pedigree, the right clothes, the good dance moves and the top-tier frat credentials.

He’s the good guy. He understands that brotherhood doesn’t mean supporting criminal behavior, either through actions or silence. He accepts women as peers, but acknowledges that even peers sometimes need assistance and protection. He knows that “no means no,” and so do incapacitation, hesitation and insecurity. He believes campus rape is a real problem, and he is as committed as you are to ending it. He’s the guy who helps keep you safe. And if he looks good in a coat and tie and does a mean pretzel, that is just a bonus.

Melanie Howard has written for SELF, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other publications. She is co-author of the novel Queen of the Court and a 1979 honors graduate of the University of Virginia whose son and daughter currently attend the university. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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