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What the UVA Rape Cases Teach Us

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I don't think anyone can come away from Rolling Stone's article on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia without feeling sickened by it.  If the events as narrated are true, a boy brought a freshman girl to a fraternity event as a date, then shepherded her upstairs to be gang raped by a number of his fraternity brothers.  This is not some "he-said, she-said" about whether intoxicated sex constituted rape; it was a forcible violation by a gang of strangers who left her bloody and shattered. Her friends encouraged her not to report the rape, lest they be shut out of UVA's powerful Greek scene.  The dean she went to was carefully neutral on the topic of whether she should go to the police.

This last should give us pause.  I understand the rationale for it: If you insist on reporting, fewer victims may come forward.  However, in this case, and presumably many others, the net effect is that UVA may have helped seven rapists to walk around free, with the opportunity to commit more heinous crimes.

I've spoken at length about the troubling impact that campus adjudication with limited due process can have on the lives of accused men.   I've spoken less, however, about the other problem, which is how it can leave predators free to commit more rapes.  Helping victims focus on their own healing may well be better for the victims; I'm not an expert, so I couldn't say.  But it's probably worse for the future victims.  Expelling a man may be a pretty big burden on him, but we'd really like to put an even bigger burden on people who gang-rape 18-year-old girls; we'd like to lock them up where they can't get at any more 18-year-old girls.  I'm at least open to arguments that a college disciplinary hearing is what we need to combat "non-consensual-kissing."  But it is ludicrously inadequate as either a punishment for, or a deterrent to, what allegedly happened in that fraternity house.

Do victims have a right to stay home and focus on themselves, while leaving the predators who did it at large to rape again?  Do administrators have a right to focus on the victims, rather than the risk to the community?  These are hard questions, and I'm not sure I have good answers.  But I do worry that by bundling gang rape into the catch-all category of sexual assault, in the hopes of raising the offensiveness of groping women and otherwise forcing your unwanted attentions on their bodies, we are also reducing the seriousness with which we treat gang rape.  And by beefing up college disciplinary systems to go after the former, we're providing an easier avenue for everyone, victims and administrators alike.  But especially administrators: If you have a well-developed system for handling "sexual assault," then it's a nice way to feel that you are doing something about the problem of gang rape--while shielding the school from bad publicity, and leaving the perpetrators free to do the rape again.

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