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  • Why We Matter
  • Bonnie Gordon (bio)

On November 19, 2014, I walked into Old Cabell Hall, which houses the music department at the University of Virginia, and heard the word “rape” seven times before I got to my office. The building sits directly across from Thomas Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda; with classrooms, practice rooms, a library, and a concert hall, Old Cabell Hall, like most music department buildings, usually resounds with a busy soundscape of studying, talking, eating, drinking, singing, musical instruments, recorded music, and construction noise. On this memorable Wednesday morning, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at uva,” and the foyer sounded more like a piece of feminist performance art, resonant with phrases like rape, gang rape, bottle, police, and assault.1 The story was based on the account of an anonymous student, “Jackie,” who reported that she was gang raped in a University of Virginia fraternity. It also portrayed the deans of students involved in the case as callously and purposefully ignoring the incident. Two weeks later, Rolling Stone retracted the story, eliciting victim blaming, death threats for the women involved, and outrage from Greek men who felt their character had been falsely maligned.

Whether or not the gang rape described by Sabrina Rubin Erdely occurred, the University of Virginia, like most college campuses, has a rape culture problem. I cannot be alone among readers of this journal in having students each year who share experiences of rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment, sometimes involving students, sometimes involving faculty. Working with students who have survived gender-based violence or experienced some form of gender-based harassment comprises an important part of our job. [End Page 116]

Rape on college campuses attracted massive media attention in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In 2010 the University of Virginia made national news when fourth-year student George Huguely murdered his ex-girlfriend, fourth-year student Yeardley Love. And we, like many colleges with residence halls, have an over-the-top drinking culture. Yale made headlines in 2013 because only one in six students found guilty of nonconsensual sex received a suspension. Amherst College banned fraternities as a response to sexual misconduct. There has been a steady stream of rape accusations, and not just at schools with big, revenue-generating sports cultures and Greek systems. The tension between due process and Title IX sexual misconduct regulations plagues every institution’s attempts to deal with sexual misconduct. It would be foolhardy to think that any school is immune from problems of sexual violence or handles accusations perfectly. The University of Virginia is one of over eighty institutions under Title IX investigations for the handling of sexual violence and harassment. Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and unc–Chapel Hill are all on that list.

The weeks that followed the Rolling Stone article reminded me repeatedly that we teach music and gender classes for very visceral reasons and that we continue to need a journal called Women & Music. I kept coming back to a conversation I’d had with Suzanne Cusick in which she said that we teach and write about gender in part to give students and colleagues the tools to understand, resist, and transform the cultural norms that disempower women. Feminist musicological approaches helped me and my students think through the Rolling Stone article that captivated a nation and also the responses that came when the magazine discredited the article. This essay opens a dialogue about the rape culture entrenched in American universities and the scholarly musical community. I suggest that the historical and feminist perspectives we bring can help to process and change current cultures in universities. Our work can give students the tools to identify the structures of patriarchal control that perpetuate rape culture and to exploit this knowledge in order to effect change.

Rape and Rolling Stone

The fall of 2014 put gender-based violence at the center of everyone’s thinking at the University of Virginia and put us in the middle of two national media frenzies. During the first month of classes, a second-year student was abducted, raped, and murdered by a serial killer...


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pp. 116-124
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