UVA activists, author of Rolling Stone article speak

UVA student Sara Surface was dismayed to see the Rolling Stone article glossed over her activist work. Photo: Emily Morone. UVA student Sara Surface was dismayed to see the Rolling Stone article glossed over her activist work. Photo: Emily Morone.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage in the wake of the Rolling Stone story on rape at UVA. There’s more: An in-depth look at the University’s sexual assault policy, a Q&A with Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas on her reaction to the story, responses from two women who reported their own rapes while students, a look at an alumna’s success raising money for a victims’ defense fund, and information on victims coming forward from a Charlottesville prosecutor. 

For the handful of current and former UVA students named in the Rolling Stone story that rocked the University last week, the publication of the piece didn’t come as a shock. That doesn’t mean they weren’t taken aback.

Freelance reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely first got in touch with Emily Renda in July. Renda, a 2014 graduate now working as a project coordinator on sexual assault prevention for UVA Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin’s office, is a well-known and outspoken advocate for sexual assault victims and for policy reform at the University. Back in April, when she was still a student 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.

“I’ve never really thought twice about participating in any kind of forum where I’m asked to share my personal experience,” said Renda, who knows the still-anonymous woman called “Jackie” whose story is at the center of the Rolling Stone piece. “By speaking out, you give permission for others to speak out. I never really hesitated to share my story.”

Erdely approached other activists, too, including Sara Surface, a student leader with University’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition; Alex Pinkleton, a rape survivor and 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 bothers Renda and Surface, who both said they felt that Erdely didn’t accurately represent them or the University’s activism community.

“We were sort of portrayed as party people that she found on Rugby Road,” Surface said.

“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,” said Renda, who is quoted in the piece as saying she drank to deal with her own rape after not reporting it to the school. “I didn’t want to see that trivialized, as if I was a socially climbing alcoholic. I think that nuance was totally missed.”

Surface also accurately predicted people would pounce on one detail that didn’t ring true to many current and former students: the claim that the offensive old frat song “Rugby Road,” which includes verses that praise binge drinking and girls who will “fuck for 50 cents,” was still an “integral part” of UVA culture.

But both women said their main concern was that the story failed to explain the complexities of the University’s sexual assault policies, and unnecessarily vilified administrators, including Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, whom Renda and Surface praised as a strong defender of victims.

“It’s a subject that evokes a lot of anger and disgust and grief,” Renda said, and she’d hoped the story would have done more to educate people. “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.”

“My biggest fear from this is that there will be people who don’t think that there are allies at the University, which is just completely untrue,” said Surface.

“I think it’s really encouraging that a lot of students are involved,” said Erdely in an interview the day after the Rolling Stone piece was published online. “I’m sorry they feel that I didn’t shine enough of a light on that. I think they are a very small and important light on a very dark campus. Their work is hopefully in its infancy, and hopefully will start to take on greater significance and importance. I did not mean to undermine their good work.”

Erdely acknowledged that her story showed one side of UVA culture, “but it is the dominant culture,” she said. Which is why she kept hammering on those “Rugby Road” verses.

“That’s what I wanted to address, that the degradation of women is intrinsically woven into the campus, and on every campus, and frankly in our culture,” she said. “If people are getting confused by that, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s another aspect of their denialism.”

Despite their qualms, Renda and Surface were adamant that the piece served an important purpose: It’s blown up an issue that for too long has been dealt with quietly or ignored.

“I think the intent of the article is to erase the silence around sexual assault on college campuses,” said Surface. “I think nationally, that will hopefully be an effect.”

When asked if she regretted agreeing to be a part of the story, Renda paused.

“It’s very much a double-edged sword,” she finally said. “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.”

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