On January 27th—just a little over a week ago now—Corey Batey and Brandon Vanderburg were convicted on 16 counts of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery, found guilty after a 12-day trial . The case has draw a great deal of both local and national attention, so I won’t go into any real detail of rehashing what went down, but in short, Vanderberg and Batey, along with Brandon Banks and Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie, who are still awaiting trial, were accused (and in the case of the former, convicted) of a rather brutal rape and assault of a then 21-year-old student, who actually happened to be Vanderberg’s girlfriend at the time, and who was unconscious at the time of the rape. The survivor had not even been aware of what had happened to her until she had seen the video that Vanderberg had taped with his phone (and then tried to destroy/cover-up). Basically, this woman found out via video footage—footage that was circulated to a number of Vandy football players—that, while on a night out with her boyfriend, she was the victim of a gang rape that had been basically orchestrated, and then filmed, by said boyfriend. Awful is the only word I can think of at the moment, though that seems to be putting it far too lightly.
While, on the one hand, there doesn’t seem much to gain by adding to the chatter around the whole thing, on the other hand, I feel compelled to write something for a number of reasons, the first being that that sexual assault, and in particular, college/campus sexual assault, is something I care deeply about/am rather passionate about. By this I, of course, mean that I am rather passionate about it in that it infuriates me and that I care about the “recovery”/well-being of those who have survived it (a whopping 20-25% of female college students, not to mention the reality that there are male survivors as well, likely far more then the [rather varying] statistics suggest) as well as about trying to dismantle/fight against the culture that sustains it…
Secondly, and closely related, I think it’s important to counter, in however measly a way, the cruel, negative, victim-blaming, rape culture-lauding stuff that’s available in abundance on the interwebs, none of which I’m actually linking to, cause I don’t want to proliferate that shit, not even by way of the wonderful “do not link,” tool. If you have the desire to actually see that—and somehow haven’t come across it in said abundance, because you’ve somehow found a utopia in life and on the internet where you’re surrounded by only wonderful people and you never happen to even glance at the comment section on anything—by all means, do a google search, I guarantee you, you’ll—unfortunately—find plenty (and remember, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, skeptical, and/or desiring to weep or throw stuff or punch a wall or whatever, just scroll on down to the comments of pretty much any story on this…).
Brief aside: I love the closely-related point Roxane Gay makes in her fabulous book Bad Feminist during her discussion of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. Gay turns to various advancements women have made that Rosin toutes (adeptly nuancing, complexifying, and in many instances critiquing, said achievements). One she turns to is how Rosin lauds the expansion of the definition of rape to include “acts that stop short of penetration,” (i.e. oral sex) and “circumstances in which the victim is too incapacitated (usually meaning too drunk) to give consent.” Gay points out that this is undeniably a great advancement, but then goes on to chart some of the astounding (and not in a good way) comments on rape made by politicians—she gives example after example of this, from Todd Akin’s classification of “legitimate rape” to Ron Paul’s “honest rape” to Roger Rivard’s belief that some girls “rape so easy,”etc…etc… Gay goes on to write:
“Rosin is not wrong that life has improved in measurable ways for women, but she is wrong in suggesting that better is good enough. Better is not good enough, and it’s a shame that anyone would be willing to settle for so little. I cannot think of clearer evidence of how alive and well the patriarchy remains (see above)” (100).
To that, all I have to say is amen, Professor Gay. A-fucking-men. And with that “introduction” and “aside” in mind, here are (some of) my thoughts, in convenient list form.
1. Yes, it’s a win in some ways, but it is also, in many ways, a lose- lose.
Yes, it is a “victory” that “justice was served.” (And putting those words in scare quotes isn’t meant to diminish that point, but more on that in a second…) This is especially important given the fact that so very many rapes and assaults go unreported, and of that of those that do, and the small percentage of those that do end up in court, even fewer lead to a conviction, it turning into a he said v. she said (or he said v. he said or she said v. she said, or they said v. he said, etc….), the survivors story often being questioned (#ThePatriarchy. Also, this comic [see below right]) especially if there is alcohol involved, as if intoxication ensures consent, rather then—as the law states—indicates the lack thereof. So, it is a big deal, on a number of levels, that this went down the way it did. Add to that the fact that these guys were football players, and the status and stardom that goes along with that, and it’s all the more remarkable. So yes, the fact that these men are facing serious consequences for their despicable and damaging actions, especially our societal tendencies for this not to be the case, is huge, and good. For the survivor of said despicable and damaging actions, for other women who feel some sort of vindication through this, for women who might now come forward with their own experiences, and potentially seek/get justice and/or support (though, this could also potentially backfire for many women, in light of the realities of the system/culture, but still), for men who think that because of their athelete status they can get away with this kind of awfulness who are now doubting such assumptions… For all those reasons and many that I’ve failed to list or even think of, these convictions are a good thing.
That being said, while yes they should absolutely be held responsible and face consequences for their actions, I also don’t think that the our current criminal justice system, or the prison system (/industrial complex) that is often the consequence for convicted crimes, is either just nor good…
It was a bit of a, for lack of better words, mindfuck (I sincerely tried to think of a better word here, y’all, especially given I’ve already cursed in this post, but I just couldn’t think of one, and googling synonyms definitely didn’t help), in that this trial was happening while I was writing an engagement for Syndicate Theology for a symposium on Amy Levad’s book Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration, where I basically argue that reform is not enough (sorry for the spoiler—my post is titled “Is Reform Enough?” ha) and that, given the inadequacies and injustices of the prison system in the U.S. we need to start talk talking about abolition, at the very least as a way to begin to think more critically and imaginatively about said system. It was especially… mentally (and emotionally) jarring to write a response on my initial post after a dialogue with the author, arguing all the more passionately against the system mere moments after the verdict was announced. Sure, it’s common for people to live in ways that are quite different from what they say they believe (the religious congruence fallacy), but the psychic juxtaposition of my hatred of rape (and thus desire for punishment for perpetrators of it) and my hatred of the prison industrial complex was….stressful.
Put simply, I’d see the conviction as far more of a “win” if we had a system that was about restorative justice and rehabilitation rather then retribution, not to mention if we lived in a society that not only wasn’t so infested by rape culture, but also infested with racism, not to mention classism and a capitalistic system that puts many people in dire situations, not to mention bizarre (astoundingly not Christian) senses of piety and morality that sees folks as “once a ‘criminal’ always a ‘criminal’” and sees those of “us” not in prison as unavowedly better humans. Moreover, it would be far more of a win for me if we actually attended to the culture that seems to, on the one hand, blame the victim and praise nonconsensual sex (i.e. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and, at the very same time, view offenders as despicable others, born criminals that we as a culture have no part in creating (i.e. SVU). Thus, to my second point…
2. We need to attend to the broader systems at play, from institutional responses to the broader, pervasive “rape culture” that perpetuates it.
I’ve already said as much, but I think this bears highlighting/repeating. The Chancellor of Vanderbilt, Nicholas Zeppos, recently sent an his email to the Vanderbilt community following the conviction. In the email, he expresses his commitment to eliminating sexual misconduct at Vanderbilt, and acknowledges that we “must individually and collectively create a culture of transparency, support and cooperation.” Chancellor Zeppos goes on to re-articulate his personal and professional commitment to this work of eradicating campus sexual violence, and informs the community of educational and preventative resources available. I was grateful of his words and appreciated the email in my inbox. Though I was a bit struck by something he said at the beginning of his email. Chancellor Zeppos writes:
“The heinous conduct described at trial was not the product of Vanderbilt’s culture. On the contrary, such conduct is the very opposite of the values Vanderbilt stands for and our students hold dear. We abhor sexual misconduct, and we subject every student to the same standards” (emphasis mine).
While I understand why he is saying that, and get that, sure, nobody (or, at least, I hope nobody) and certainly not the administration, is actively/intentionally condoning such conduct, I wonder if it is fair to go so far as to imply, to pretend, that we (Vanderbilt and the people that are a part of it- note that I’m not exempting myself here) don’t perpetuate it… Vanderbilt is, after all, one of the many (the count is currently at 94 95, as of January 7th, 2015) schools under investigation regarding Title IX compliance. Even if every school on the list is seen as being in total compliance (and I would hands-down bet the entirety of my life savings—which admittedly is not much at all, but still, it’s a lot to me—that that is not going to be the case), the fact that so many universities, Vanderbilt included, are under investigation, hints at the very least that something is very, very wrong with our campus cultures and values.
And as Amanda Taub points out, in the Vox essay, “The Vanderbilt trial shows why bystanders have no incentive to stop rape,” Vanderberg, Batey, Banks, and McKenzie’s “friends who admitted in court that they enabled the crime during and after the fact have received punishments ranging from ‘almost nothing’ to ‘literally nothing.’ Their actions are a perfect primer for How to Succeed in Rape Culture Without Really Trying.”
The Vox piece goes on to offer a scathing satirical list of said “advice,” ranging from: “If your roommate is hosting a gang rape of an unconscious woman mere feet from your bed, protect his feelings by pretending to be asleep,” to The rules of friendship require that you pick up a half-naked unconscious rape victim from the hallway where your friends left her and return her to her rapist’s bed.” “Rape culture, everyone. It’s real,” Taub asserts, with the weight of her myriad of examples supporting her point, concluding by noting that “the terrible incentives it creates for bystanders are one of its most insidious effects.”
How to begin to remedy/challenge rape culture and it’s especially strong grip on our college campuses? That’s a topic for a whole other blog post and then some and then some, but perhaps we should take a lesson from 12 step programs and begin by admitting that we definitely have a problem…
3. Those two things being said/kept in mind, let’s not make this a “the rapists are the victims” story
Speaking of scathing satire, a friend of mine recently alerted me to an essay/video on The Onion on “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed,” aptly noting “Maddening. Again, The Onion has predicted reality.”
She shared this piece because this story had just come out, announcing that “One week after he was convicted of raping an unconscious student, former Vanderbilt University football player Corey Batey sat down for an interview with Dr. Phil.” While the interview has not aired yet, and we’ve been told by Batey’s attorney Worrick Robinson that “Dr. Phil asked Batey some tough questions,” the subtext of the “publicity,” especially in light of aforementioned point about rape culture, at least to some (either those who are “supporters” of Batey and his peers [again, check out comments sections y’all…] or to many survivors who’ve been subjected to victim blaming [see above comic]) carries the implicit message of “poor football player! He had such promise, and his life has now been ruined! It wasn’t his fault, he was just wrapped up in the sports culture…. And besides, she was drinking…. And what was she even wearing?” Etc… Or, as Robinson put it, “”It was about, I think, a bigger picture in all of this … the alcohol abuse going on, the culture argument.” So…yeah….let’s not miss the point here—by which I mean, let’s not forget a crucial piece of this story, the survivor’s story. And, by extension, the stories of so many other survivors. As the survivor said at the end of her press release following the announcement of the verdict:
“I want to remind other victims of sexual violence: You are not alone. You are not to blame.” As Dean Emilie Townes wrote in her incredibly wise and thoughtful (etc…) piece on this topic (in which she articulated many of the things I tried to say here, just far, far better [duh]) for the Feminist Studies in Religion blog, “Exactly.” Townes continues, in a passage that’s worth quoting at length. She writes:
I hope that this message is heard loud and clear not only in Nashville, but also globally. It will take time to change the culture of dominance and denial, fear and disregard for the integrity of our bodies but many folks have been trying and I am hoping that more will join us to do so. What I sit with this morning is the fact that our college campuses, like the rest of our society, are not always safe spaces. Yes, alcohol figures large in this case but the problem of binge drinking and the use of drugs on many campuses is a factor but not the cause of the myriad unjust acts I see happen on our campuses—and these acts are not just confined to students. Faculty and staff can be part of the problem as well. Neither is a “football culture” or a “sports culture” the reason—these are offshoots of the more malevolent root of this problem. I deeply believe that the key factor that causes us to create and live in unsafe spaces is that the junk we have about others and ourselves—be it age, class, (dis)ability, ethnicity, geographic origin, race, religion and more—sits down in the middle of our quads, in our libraries, in our classrooms, our playing fields, in our offices, in our boardrooms. This junk allows us believe that some of us are more human than others of us. We think that power is to be used to dominate and control rather than to be shared and encourage growth for all. We allow our ignorance of one another to be seen as knowledge with caricatures and stereotypes being the morbid sentinels of our fears that ignorance often spawns. We warp hatred into thinking we are caring. The junk list goes on.
We cannot escape who we are and what we think and believe. But we can and must change when those thoughts and beliefs lead to acts that defile, humiliate, shame, or kill one another whether it is physical, psychic, or emotional. We can be and must be better than this. Not only because doing so is just. We must do so because it is right.
To that, all I have left to say, then—forgive my redundancies and my language—is A-fucking-men.
 Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 99. Here, Gay is directly quoting Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (New York: Penguin Group, 2012).
 Bad Feminist, 99ff. Also, you should read the book, it’s really great. Gay does a remarkable job at offering critical commentary that is still charitable (/charitable commentary that is still critical).
 The two least vulgar options I found were mind boggle (which just sounded silly) and mind screw (not much better). When inquiring for synonyms with colleagues/friends (see, I really did try hard not to curse!), the best synonym I was offered (by two people, actually) was “shit brains”….
 As Emilie Townes, Dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, so wisely and thoughtfully put it in “Enough,” her essay on this topic for the Feminist Studies in Religion blog, “My greatest fear was that this would turn into a swamp mess of blaming the victim and racism and I have no doubt that there are some who have done exactly this. From what I’ve learned from those who know the young woman and worked to provide her support, she is an attractive, smart young White woman. From what I can tell from the pictures of the young men, three are Black and one is White and the accusations of the prosecution is that the young White man orchestrated the rape. This is not good, I thought, given the history of gender and race in this country where women and those who are seen as feminine in some manner are devalued and oppressed and darkness is feared and annihilated.”