Intra-organizational sexual violence must be taken seriously

Students Against Sexual Violence has primarily focused our energy on the way the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices adjudicates sexual misconduct cases. In working towards our policy change goals for OSARP, we cannot neglect the fact that reports of sexual misconduct are too often mishandled by other entities including the Health Center, JMU Police, Harrisonburg Police, Sentara RMH, and, as this story will focus on, within the leadership of student organizations. 

We as students cannot speak out against an administration that denies support to victims without also examining our own behavior and treatment of sexual violence. While names have been changed in this story to protect the privacy of the survivor and uninvolved members of her organization, the details of how students in leadership positions responded to her complaint of sexual assault are verified through an email exchange.

On the night of February 2, 2018, Maggie* attended a typical party hosted for the brothers of her co-educational professional fraternity. She had a lot to drink, as most brothers in attendance did, and eventually wandered into a bedroom hoping to rest. One of her brothers, Evan*, was in that bedroom already. Little did Maggie know, another one of her female brothers had been pulled out of the room just minutes before by a friend who was concerned Evan was taking advantage of her intoxication. Evan and Maggie spoke for a few minutes before Maggie passed out on the bed. 

Maggie says she remembers waking up periodically throughout the night to the feeling of Evan assaulting her. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she was disoriented and disempowered (and clearly unable to give consent). Maggie left the house early the next morning feeling confused and dirty. She went back to her on-campus dorm, showered many times, and crawled into her own bed, which she barely left for the next few days. Eventually, Maggie called her friend James and described what had happened. James* validated her experience and spoke the words that have the power to turn someone’s world upside down: “Maggie, you were sexually assaulted.”

Not knowing how to handle the situation and fearing a formal report wouldn’t be taken seriously, Maggie wanted to heal. But sharing a fraternity with her assaulter made moving on impossible. She began to speak about what had happened. First, she confided in close friends and warned other women at parties. Then she told the president of the fraternity, Christopher*,  about what happened. 

Christopher shamed Maggie for speaking about the assault, claiming she could harm both Evan’s reputation and the reputation of the fraternity. He went on to schedule a General Body Meeting to alert brothers of the “facts” of the situation- but suggested to keep Maggie’s voice out of the meeting, saying that if she was absent, her attendance would not be affected. He also spoke with Evan and ensured Evan would stay inactive for the remainder of the semester (a total of four months at most). 

Maggie says the one line  from Christopher’s email that will stay with her forever is “As we are sure you know, there is a line between finding comfort in your friends, and spreading a one-sided story.” 

Here are a few excerpts of the emails that Maggie received from Christopher: 

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With the support of James and other friends and family, Maggie decided to transfer to another Virginia university in the fall. Although she had hoped to graduate from one of the more prestigious colleges at JMU, the toll that the assault and subsequent reaction by individuals she thought that she could trust had on her mental health was impossible to ignore. 

This should not be happening. When individuals experience sexual violence and are forced to reroute their education because of it, equal opportunity does not exist. Student leaders, we have to do better. 

If a member of your organization turns to you with a report of intra-organizational violence, recognize that the severity of the situation is beyond your scope of leadership. It is your responsibility not to worsen the situation by discrediting the alleged victim and/or defending the alleged offender. It is your responsibility to inform the reporter of resources available to them. It is your responsibility to alert Title IX.

It is most definitely not your responsibility to host a discussion about the event at a general body meeting without the input and consent of the only person who actually experienced the event. It is most definitely not your story to tell. 

Here at James Madison, we are indoctrinated with the concept of living ethically as an engaged citizen from our very first week. We should know that the dignity and worth of a person’s life comes before the reputation of your organization and its members. 

JMU administrators, we need to start providing student leaders with training as to how they can handle reports within their own organizations. They need to know who they can refer members to for support. They need to face consequences when they act as Christopher did. 

“Maggie,” I hope you find peace and belonging at your new school next year. I hope you are able to pursue the degree you are passionate about without the interruption of sexual violence. You deserved better than this.