Before this past Wednesday, Emily Renda was well-known at UVA as an outspoken advocate for sexual assault victims and for policy reform at the University. Back in April, when she was a fourth-year serving as co-chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council, she wrote a piece for the Huffington Post detailing her rape by a party date as a first-year. She’s long been frank about what happened to her at UVA, and has encouraged others to speak out.
That made her a natural contact for Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the freelance reporter whose piece on rape at UVA continues to rock the community. Erdely first got in touch with Renda, by then a graduate and working as a project coordinator on sexual assault prevention for UVA Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin, in July, Renda said. Erdely approached other activists, too, including Sara Surface, a student leader with University’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition; Alex Pinkleton, a member of anti-sexual assault advocacy group One Less; and Brian Head, president of UVA’s all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four. All were quoted in Erdely’s piece, but their advocacy work wasn’t mentioned.
That’s one issue Renda has with the story, which includes details about her dealing with her own rape by drinking excessively to self-medicate. She explains some of her other concerns—that the piece lacks a thorough explanation of why universities adjudicate sexual assault complaints in the first place, and that it vilifies administrators—in greater detail below. (C-VILLE has also been in touch with Erdely, who said she felt Renda and the others’ work was “a very small light on a very dark campus,” and said she was sorry if they felt her piece undermined the “good work” they were doing; we will post the full interview with Erdely in a few days.)
For all that, Renda also believes the story has done a good thing: It’s pushed people into angry action on an issue that badly needs it.
C-VILLE’s interview with Renda has been edited slightly for length, but the words below are hers:
“I’ve never really thought twice about participating in any kind of forum where I’m asked to share my personal experience. By speaking out, you give permission for others to speak out. I never really hesitated to share my story. And I also feel like there’s not a lot of nuanced discussion about sexual assault. It’s a subject that evokes a lot of anger and disgust and grief. In circumstances like that, it’s really easy to point fingers, create an effigy, hang it and burn it. You want to be angry at something. I don’t think there’s a lot of critical engagement.
“You want media coverage to acknowledge that it’s complicated. Victims make choices, and we really do have to respect giving people back their power and control. Understanding victim choices is something I think the public has a hard time doing.
“I think some people really do want [the administration to hand over every case to law enforcement]. I’m one of the people on point for reading all the comments on the new sexual misconduct policy, and that’s what people are saying. If you want to go back in time and repeal the Higher Education Act, I guess you could try. But we have a legal obligation to handle it.
“Legally compliant responses still result in people experiencing pain, and that’s hard to come to terms with. People are raging against the walls and boundaries of the system rather than engaging in the procedural pieces that are actually subject to change. I think that [the story] lacked perspective on the breadth of the issue. I acknowledge that it’s a difficult task for a writer to undertake. Frankly, a story that acknowledged how much of a mess this whole system is would be 50,000 words long and probably wouldn’t get enough readers to run in a magazine.
“But I think anything can be turned into a good conversation. I think we have to work at this one. It really did consistently tear everyone down. We’ve all been torn down. This article didn’t offer any substantive way to move forward. I hope the student energy will be something to the effect of, ‘There are a lot of things wrong. What is my role? What can I do?’
“I was dismayed that after having told my story to so many people, I was portrayed as though I somehow didn’t report or share my story because I wanted to gain some sort of social status. That was frustrating to me. I didn’t report for a variety of reasons. I will always defend my choice not to report at the time—I’ll defend first-year me to the day I die. But I’ve always been forthcoming about the nature of trauma. I didn’t want to see that trivialized, as if I was a socially climbing alcoholic. I think that nuance was totally missed. It may have been done in the service of a good story. It could have been my inability to express myself.
“[Being a part of the Rolling Stone piece was] very much a double-edged sword. I’m trying to think of something comparable, and I’m thinking about it like an amputation. We’ve lost our innocence and our ability to ignore this. That said, having a leg chopped off hurts. There’s a lot of anger and rage and grief. I have mixed feelings about having participated, because I acknowledge the pain it caused.
“It’s heartbreaking to me that people who might need help are going to be scared away from coming. There are a variety of people you can come to to get you into the system. We can still try to do outreach. We can say, ‘Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but we want to make things better for you.’ And I strongly believe that that’s the tone this administration is coming with. We acknowledge that we have failed, but we need your help to be better.
“What happened is awful, but it is a product of the culture we live in, and we are our culture. We have to stop and turn inward and say, ‘How do I respond to this?’ How do you want to ask for change from your institutions? We are our culture and it’s a hard thing to come to terms with.
“That’s what I’m hoping people will get. You can definitely demand things from the administration, and you should. But I hope this also makes people better bystanders when people come forward.”