Just a couple of weeks after Bob Jones University told the ministry Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) that its services wouldn’t be needed anymore in investigating instances of sexual abuse on campus, another fundamentalist school is in the spotlight now for pretty much the same awful reason.
At Patrick Henry College (below), a private Christian school that sends a disproportionate number of graduates into political fields and has been dubbed “God’s Harvard,” it appears that reports of sexual abuse have not been taken seriously even after female students step forward with their stories.
Researchers estimate that one in five American women is sexually assaulted in college, and Patrick Henry College’s unique campus culture has not insulated the school from sexual violence. In fact, it puts female students, like Claire Spear, in a particular bind: How do you report sexual assault at a place where authorities seem skeptical that such a thing even exists?
One winter night in 2010, John and Claire were together in his car in Purcellville. John claims that nothing inappropriate happened, but Claire says that, without warning, he climbed over the console between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat, mounted her, and began grinding against her. She froze, unable to speak. Afterward, Claire agonized over why she hadn’t “fought him” off. “I was afraid that it had something to do with my sinful nature,” she says. In the Christian world Claire had been brought up in, men only do bad things to impure women who have tempted them. She blamed herself, tried to act normal, and told no one.
Eventually, though, Claire did tell someone: Sandra Corbitt (below), Dean of Student Affairs and the head disciplinarian.
It didn’t help.
When Claire told Dean Corbitt what had happened in John’s car that night, she says, “it felt like I was just talking to a brick wall.” The administration “basically told me that they couldn’t do anything because none of the details of my story could be proven.” It seemed to her that the school was far more concerned about her underage drinking than it was about an allegation of sexual assault. Corbitt forced Claire to call her mother to tell her she was in trouble for alcohol — and told Claire to be careful because she had put herself on the dean’s “radar.” Claire says PHC administrators never mentioned the possibility of involving the police. The administration was supposed to be a second parent, Claire says, but “they didn’t take me seriously.”
Claire’s story isn’t the only one in Feldman’s piece and there’s a common thread between them. The women are not trusted to tell the whole truth; in fact, they’re blamed for their own assaults, for possibly flirting or giving mixed signals or wearing the wrong kinds of clothing. The men are given minor, if any, punishments. Most importantly, the stories are to be kept in-house — no one else must ever know about these issues, even if that means deleting certain emails or text messages.
It’s not much of a surprise to see this happen when you consider the culture that many of these Christian students are raised in — they’re taught that men are the breadwinners, always in charge, while a woman’s highest calling is submissive wife and eventual mother. (Somehow, all of that is a demonstration of equality.) And those attitudes make it a lot harder to take seriously reports of assault.
Libby Anne, who grew up in this culture, writes about the problems within it:
… the victim blaming, the discounting of testimony by young women, the unceasing slut shaming. These patterns exist outside of this world too, it is true, but it sometimes feels like they are almost institutionalized within certain circles of the homeschooling world — and the result is a very unsafe atmosphere for the young women and girls that world supposedly puts so much value on protecting.
For what it’s worth, Patrick Henry College denies many of the allegations made against them and says they appropriately handled the situations of the women profiled in the story.
Still, if more women who attend these schools have the courage to tell their stories publicly, the schools won’t be able to ignore their underwhelming reactions to instances of sexual assault for much longer. The spotlight needs to be kept on them — more importantly, women who consider attending these schools need to be warned about the dismissive attitudes these campuses have when it comes to their well-being.
The most telling passage in the story may be this one near the end, where Feldman calls Corbitt to speak about the accusations:
This past May, I called Dean Sandra Corbitt at her office. A woman answered the phone, saying, “Hello, this is Sandy.” But when I identified myself as a reporter with questions about PHC’s handling of sexual assault, the woman responded in the third person about the dean’s availability. “She’s getting ready to head out of town for vacation,” the woman told me. In a statement, PHC confirmed that the woman on the phone was Corbitt, who “was obviously surprised by having a reporter bypass normal telephone protocol in the Office of Student Life by securing her personal phone extension and dialing her directly.”
Patrick Henry College, and schools like it, want nothing to get in the way of the image they project, even if it comes at the expense of women’s safety on campus.