Art by Kirsten Hemrich
Last month I found myself sitting around a stranger’s kitchen table with a group of sexual assault survivors and co-conspirators, plotting.
“One system after another is failing us,” said Sarah Carter, the fourth-year College student who founded UVA Survivors in September. Sarah, speaking almost exclusively in motivational phrases, described UVA Survivors as a “radically inclusive” political group for victims of sexual assault and their allies that seeks to “build a world where organizations like this one don’t have to exist.”
The group convenes on Monday nights, rarely gathering in the same place twice, when members tell their stories and discuss their direct action strategies, which are slated to unfold next semester. There is no executive committee, application process, hierarchy, fundraising campaign, or official CIO status. When I asked her about the more established student prevention groups on Grounds, Sarah quipped, “We’re going against the typical UVA norms.” For Sarah, applying UVA norms—like the extensive application and initiation processes involved in joining a prestigious student organization—to sexual assault response groups can seem to ask survivors, “Were you assaulted enough?”
UVA Survivors is, quite simply, for everybody. “The fact that anyone even comes to a meeting shows their incredible strength,” Sarah said. “No one is doing this for their resume.”
The group addresses “the many layers of assault” and creates a space for survivors to share their experiences with sexual and gender orientation and assault. The majority of the members are LGBTQ+-identifying, part of a population at UVA almost twice as likely to be victims of assault than their straight counterparts (22.8 versus 12.9 percent). Even so, “efforts to address sexual assault and violence have always centered the most privileged of survivors, [as] shown in the #MeToo Movement,” UVA Survivors wrote in a statement.
The group seeks to illuminate how survivors’ marginalized identities have shaped “their sexual assault, the aftermath, and their healing process.”
We spent a lot of time talking about systems, particularly Title IX. (Federal law mandates that universities adjudicate cases of sexual misconduct under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.) UVA's Title IX process found a number of the members’ assailants, including Sarah’s, “not responsible” for their sexual assaults in procedurally questionable investigations.
“I didn’t want to be a statistic, but I became one,” Sarah later told me.
UVA had notoriously failed to expel any students for rape at the time that Rolling Stone published the since-discredited story “A Rape on Campus” in 2014. Only 14 students had ever been found guilty of sexual misconduct at UVA at that time, but their sanctions had never included expulsion and were often as minor as a temporary letter placed in the offenders’ files.
In as recently as 2004, UVA threatened to expel survivors who pursued justice within the University and spoke publicly about their experience—even if they were one of the rare women whose assailants were found responsible for sexual misconduct.
UVA’s 2019 Report on the AAUU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct found that most female-identifying undergraduates do not believe it is very likely that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation in response to a report of sexual assault or other misconduct.
At a University where if I were publishing this story 15 years ago, Sarah, other members, and I would be vulnerable to Honor charges, this group’s existence feels somewhat radical. The right to gather and speak publicly against the University’s justice system is itself the result of great change. The University overhauled their adjudication procedures in 2015, and reduced the standard of evidence needed for a finding of responsibility from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance” in 2017, but the existence of this group and new statistics suggest that these changes are not enough.
The tone of the meeting was political yet confessional: by the end of the night I would hear a number of stories about parties at frats to which the survivor would never return, nameless attackers who left only phone numbers behind, and assaults that were the survivors’ first sexual encounters. As I listened, I noticed a pattern to the stories told around that table, both about the assaults themselves and the Title IX processes intended to secure justice. From the act of interpersonal violation to the long process of institutional betrayal, the stories followed the same narrative arcs. The young woman, the party, the violent man. Then the report, the hope, its annihilation. “We are watching our stories become just a number,” Sarah said, describing the University’s reporting and investigation procedures as an equation that mechanically processes survivors’ experiences, only to regurgitate them in a series of statistics.
Sarah wants to see the Title IX program change to “be more inclusive and survivor-centered.” The group’s list of proposed policy changes is not yet available to the public, but will likely be released early next semester.
“This is direct action,” Sarah insisted near the end of the night. “This is tangible change.”