UVA sexual assault advocacy groups push for change after Twitter account spurs controversy

PC: Patrick Neil PC: Patrick Neil

Two weeks ago, when Kate (who asked that we not use her real name) learned that there was a Twitter account exposing sexual predators at the University of Virginia, she was “really glad.”

“A lot of the initial names, specifically men, we had already been talking about, within the survivor community, to stay away from. These [people] were well-known within our own whisper networks,” says Kate, who is a member of the student advocacy and support group UVA Survivors. “For these names, often, this wasn’t the first time they were spoken of.”

On June 16, an anonymous Twitter account began outing dozens of people accused of sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of interpersonal violence at UVA—including student-athletes, university faculty, fraternity members, and even leaders of sexual assault prevention groups. When the person behind the initial account deleted it after receiving threats, two more accounts appeared, and began anonymously sharing stories sent by survivors.

“Conversations about sexual assault and how little is done to prevent it on Grounds, are long overdue,” said one account, which has not been suspended or deleted. “We need to pressure those in leadership positions at UVA to do everything in their power to protect and provide justice for victims of rape/sexual assault. I will not stay quiet.”

But after the accounts amassed thousands of followers, spurring a significant amount of discussion and controversy, something changed for Kate and other members of UVA Survivors. By sharing their stories online, survivors are also putting themselves in immediate danger, she says. Even though the posts appear anonymous, their abuser knows who they are, and can retaliate against them for speaking out—physically, emotionally, and legally.

“Once [UVA Survivors] got out of the state of mind like this is the ultimate justice, [we saw] at the end of the day, this is centering violence once again—making it seem like our lives as survivors are just violence, and are defined by just that one moment or moments of deep harm and hurt,” she says.

And while UVA Survivors was pleased to see more than 1,600 new people sign its petition (which was created in April), calling for the “immediate, structural, and transformative change” of the university’s sexual violence prevention and support services, the timing sent a troubling message.

“It was only 160 [signatures] for like two months. And now it’s skyrocketed to around 2,000. We were really happy about that, but at the same time we [asked], why now are you all caring? Why didn’t you care two months ago?” says Emily (not her real name), another member of the group. “You saw these really intense, violent assaults that they had on Twitter, [which] I couldn’t even read through all of them…But that’s only when people listen.”

Despite these critiques, UVA Survivors, along with other student advocacy organizations like CORE and Take Back The Night, is using the renewed spotlight on the prevalence of sexual violence on Grounds to push even harder for change. Since UVA Survivors submitted its petition to UVA in April (and the administration took no immediate action), these organizations have been working together to review and refine their recommendations, as part of Student Council’s Prevention and Survivor Support Ad-Hoc Committee.

Before fall classes begin, UVA Survivors will meet with Title IX staff, university legal counsel, and other stakeholders. Their demands include an external review of the Title IX office; survivor-created and informed education on sexual violence and consent; additional confidential employees; and increased mental health resources and health services, such as a medical center for survivors on Grounds.

UVA Survivors hopes to see physical changes too. They want the Title IX office moved out of O’Neil Hall, which is located near fraternity houses on Rugby Road.

And in addition to getting suspended or expelled—a punishment currently used sparingly within the Title IX system—perpetrators of sexual violence should have to do “educational work,” says Emily. “If you’re just going to suspend someone, that could make them even more vindictive and vengeful, and they can just go back to do it again and again. They’re not actually learning anything.”

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