What Now: When Rape and the Religious Right Collide

I still remember his body weight pressing down on top of me, while I struggled, fighting to tell him to stop. The words choked in my throat; fear strangling every syllable. I remember the stale smell of his room, his Cool Water cologne, the cheap white sheets, clinging to the mattress as I pulled on them, grasping for anything I could get my hands on to wiggle free. My mind screamed words that I couldn’t seem to articulate any louder than a whisper. I remember saying, “No,” but realizing that he took it for “yes,” and wasn’t going to stop, and that I’d have to resign to the fact that this was going to happen, and that I ought to try to enjoy it, because I put myself in this mess.

I wore the tight jeans. I agreed to come to his dorm room after hours. I allowed things to go further than I ever wanted to on the first date because I didn’t want him to dislike me. I led him on.

As he fought to burrow himself inside me, I remember trying to get him to slow down, to stop, without bruising his feelings. “Stop. . . please,” I squeaked, as he kissed my neck. I fought the urge to vomit because my body responded in ways that my mind did not want. “Please. . .” I could hear guys in the dorm hallway, laughing and joking, and I wondered if they knew what was happening. Standing guard, in case the resident assistant came by to enforce the visitor’s policy. This is not what I wanted. I said, “no,” and “no” again, as he tore flesh, barreling through me with no regard, until I heard myself screaming in panic for longer than I can recall, but long enough to catapult him to the other side of the bed in terror, afraid that I had been heard.

He tossed me my clothes, threw on his jeans and waited for me to get dressed. I hurried but kept my gaze on the floor. I was too mortified to speak. He impatiently opened the door and silently escorted me down the hallway to let me out at the back exit of the dorm. He hugged me. Unsure of what to think, I hugged him back. At 1:30 a.m., I walked back to my dorm alone.

Incidents like this happen on college campuses all of the time. When we think of rape, we often think of the violent sort. The ones that involve gang bangs, being held at knife point or snatched into an alley. Those are horrific and do occur, but college campus rapes are often murkier. Many cases involve exorbitant amounts of alcohol, he said/she said analyses or little to no witnesses.

One false accusation can destroy someone’s life. One truthful allegation, ignored, could do the same.

It doesn’t help that many colleges and universities aren’t doing the best job at dealing with these incidents. With that said, perhaps you can understand the pure horror I felt when I saw that Christian-based, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. would be heading a presidential task force – charged with trimming college regulations and curbing interference by the Department of Education. Falwell is one of the newest additions to this administration’s efforts to make the religious right the governing standard again. His new position, along with the likely confirmation of Betsy DeVos, is a major threat to the progress made by the Obama administration to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment, among other things.

If you aren’t familiar with Falwell, he’s a popular evangelical, son of the late Jerry Falwell, who supported Donald Trump during the elections, despite the countless sexual allegations made against the then-candidate. Unswayed, Falwell deemed Trump “God’s man” and spat out some tripe about everyone being sinners as an excuse. Part of Falwell’s new job will be to evaluate higher-ed regulations that deal with a gamut of issues including recruitment, financial aid, and sexual harassment and assault – the latter of which will bring up inevitable evaluations of the Department of Education’s Title IX clause.

This title prohibits sex discrimination in programs or activities at educational institutions receiving federal money. Under the Obama administration, interpretation of this statute included requiring colleges to pursue sexual assault accusations with a lower standard of evidence in mind. It also enables the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate the handling of sexual assault at universities and colleges. This view of the law holds colleges and universities accountable for how they process rape allegations. Falwell, however, has expressed major qualms about being bound by this statute.

He shared his hangup with USA Today: “Prosecutors don’t even take the cases,” he said. But schools are required to make a public announcement of what they concluded and “ruin a student’s life when there’s not enough evidence for a case to even go forward.”

I get that rape cases aren’t always cut and dry. Even the students involved aren’t always sure how to process what happened. But, it’s imperative that colleges and universities have a uniform system that addresses these cases and provides resources to help students navigate the next steps. If the evidence shows that a rape may have occurred, there needs to be a solid method in place for the accuser to be heard, the accused to have a fair hearing and for appropriate punishment to be issued if reasonable evidence has been discovered. However, many proponents of this new administration lean towards prioritizing the treatment of the accused – a practice that can cause far more harm than good.

‘I thought we had a great time.’

When I returned to my dorm the night of my incident, my roommate drilled me for details on the night’s events. She knew I had a major crush on this guy. Before he asked me out, I was convinced that he was way out of my league. He was popular, attractive and I was super shy and awkward. The fact that I even appeared on his radar was a miracle, in my opinion.

But none of that mattered when I shared my concerns about the final phases of my evening. Like me, she was unsure what to make of it and consulted with our RA for a second opinion. After retelling the story again, the RA decided it was best to call Campus Housing.

Within a few hours, the police came and I was taken to a hospital to get a rape kit. I was given several pills to ward off the potential of contracting certain STDs, a pill to treat the ones that couldn’t be prevented, and a morning-after pill for just in case.

The police asked if I wanted to file a report. I told them I needed time to think.

Within 72 hours, I was asked to join a “mediation” with the guy and the Campus Housing director. This was the university’s preferred course of action, rather than involving the police any further. I still remember the long, mahogany conference table in the director’s office. I sat at one end and him on the other. Red-eyed and distressed, he glared at me from across the room. The director gave each of us a chance to say how we felt. Seething, he said, “I don’t know why you’re doing this. But I know now to never trust women again. I thought we had a great time. I just don’t get why you’d try to ruin my life.”

I genuinely believe that part of the problem with campus rapes is that those complicit in the act see nothing wrong with the use of force. Consent seems to be a gray area, so the rules of sexual engagement are made up as we go. If a girl is drunk, but appeared to want it and then blacked out, is it ok to keep going? If she allowed a considerable amount of foreplay before intercourse, is she allowed to say no? With consent becoming a fluid definition rather than an absolute, the answers aren’t black or white anymore.

But the statistics are clear: There’s a widespread problem that requires a consistent, method of approach. Let’s look at the numbers: It is estimated that for every 1,000 women attending a college or university, there are 35 incidents of rape each academic year, according to The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had 194 open cases investigating the mishandling of sexual assault at 159 colleges and universities. We’re not even going to talk about the cases at the K-12 level.

So we can safely conclude that rape happens on college campuses and that it’s a major issue. Title IX is an effort to address these issues. But despite receiving millions in federal funds from student grant and loan programs, Falwell’s university requested a religious exemption in 2014. Why? Because they want to be able to “discipline” students who have an abortion.

Let that sink in for a second.

And this guy is about to head the task force that will address federal oversight of sexual assault and harassment on college and university campuses.

LU is also the same school that hired Ian McCaw as its athletic director last year. McCaw was formerly employed by Baylor University before he resigned in the midst of that university’s Title IX scandal. The university was allegedly complicit in covering up numerous allegations of sexual assault by athletes, and McCaw was mixed up in that whole ordeal. Yet, Falwell backed McCaw’s hiring.

Mmkay. Falwell is looking more suspect by the minute. Let’s delve a little bit further. You know that education secretary role that DeVos is hoping to occupy? Well, Falwell was given the opportunity to serve as the secretary first but passed it up to stay at LU, although he still expressed a great interest in being a part of the new administration. This presidential task force was the consolation offering. Falwell told The Chronicle of Higher Education that “the task force will be a big help to (DeVos). It will do some of the work for her.” Now, remember, this is the same woman who would not directly say whether or not she’d uphold the enforcement of Title IX or not during the confirmation hearings. Not to mention that DeVos made a personal donation of $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire). One of the organization’s core focus is to reverse the Obama administration’s policies on campus sexual assault.

This isn’t a coincidence. There’s something afoot, and it has a lot to do with folks like Falwell and the Trump administration not wanting oversight for matters relating to campus sexual assault. Adjusting or failing to enforce Title IX has its own issues, and neither DeVos or Falwell seem promising when it comes to upholding it.

He’s “suffered enough”.

After my mediation, I decided to not press charges. The guilt, at the time, was so heavy that I convinced myself any trauma I received was irrelevant to the pain I had caused him. Word eventually got out about what happened, and many of the students in my dorm blamed me for hurting him. By the second semester, I was acting out and brutally punishing myself for what happened. I was ready to quit school, but in a last-ditch effort, I requested a single room in off-campus housing in hopes of starting over. The Housing Director, sympathetic to my cause, granted my request. But by then the damage was done. The rumors were cemented and they followed me well into my sophomore year. By junior year, I moved out of campus housing completely, out of fear of running into him again or having to re-explain the stories to anyone who caught wind of my past.

As a result, I never had the fun, college experience like everyone else. I took consortium courses at nearby colleges and stayed off campus as much as possible. Eventually, I focused my energies on finishing school and moving far, far away. I graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in 2005. Despite attending the school that hosts the Greatest Homecoming On Earth, I haven’t attended a single homecoming since my freshman year.

In hindsight, I realize that I was so afraid of ruining his life that I put a lengthy pause on my own. I’ll never get those years back.

Nothing ever happened to him, by the way. By my refusing to press charges, the university saw no need to punish him – not even for breaking the co-ed visitor policy. If they did reprimand him, I was unaware of it. He had “suffered enough” with the threat of getting in trouble, one school official told me.

Perhaps, they were right. By letting the incident go, the school was able to keep the allegation off the record, spare his reputation and quietly sweep me under the rug. I fared better than most. I got help, I got better and have managed to move on. But for others whose healing may come through justice or who simply need to hear that they weren’t guilty of their own demise, my outcome could have been detrimental to them.

Unfortunately, failing to enforce Title IX could result in more stories like mine. Without the “overreach” of the Office for Civil Rights in campus sexual assault and harassment cases, universities can choose to step up or cover up, per their prerogative; leaving many victims without recourse beyond the campus administration.

With the desired management of people’s bodies being a fundamental aspect of the religious right, one would think that it would side with the victims of sexual assault and would seek to protect them and others who are at risk. At the very least, I would expect a strong defense of the weak and vulnerable, especially in instances of rape – a crime that falls under the sexual sin and violence categories. Perhaps, the likes of Falwell and his ilk long for a day of autonomy and religious governance so victims can be advised to repent rather than report.

Only time will tell. Here’s hoping this forceful religious movement won’t sweep justice under the rug, too.

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” – Amos 5:24

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Creator of Saved & Woke. Christian Apologetic yet unapologetically Black. Former journalist. Learning how to temper my petty, so God can use me. Bear with me.