Kirsten Gillibrand and Randi Weingarten Discuss Campus Sexual Assault

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten headlined a discussion about rape on college campuses today—just hours after Ms. Weingarten revealed her own past experience as the victim of an attempted sexual assault.

The AFT panel discussion panel discussion, which also included student activists Andrea Pino and Annie Clark and a Howard University professor Tricia Bent-Goodley, comes as a high-profile Rolling Stone account of a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house has been retracted due to concerns that the story is deeply inaccurate and that key figures, including the accused, were not interviewed.

“When I saw the Rolling Stone column and the retraction, I said, ‘I gotta stand up.’ Because I started to see that curtain off silence starting to come down again,” Ms. Weingarten said.

Ms. Weingarten wrote about her own personal experience this morning for Jezebel, and at the panel discussion today at the Fashion Institute of Technology recalled the same details: she said after her junior year in college, while on an internship in Ohio, a man she went on a date with tried to rape her in his apartment. Ms. Weingarten said she escaped.

The high-profile and outspoken union leader said the experience was something she simply never discussed—until today.

“That was 35 years ago, and I never told a soul. I think I might have told my mother,” she said. “But I never told another soul.”

Many activists fear the retraction of the Rolling Stone story will embolden critics who believe statistics regarding campus rape—one in four women report being the victim of rape or attempted rape in college—are overstated. Moderator Irin Carmon, an MSNBC reporter, started off the discussion by reading to Ms. Gillibrand a slew of comments from pundits who have said the rape crisis on campus’ has been overblown—including a much discussed George Will column that argued “victimhood” had become “a coveted status that confers privileges.”

“Their comments are absurd. And if you listen to the stories of survivors about what has happened to them, no one would say being raped is a coveted status,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “These are horrible, horrible things that happened to them.”

Ms. Gillibrand said in addition to having to endure the trauma of sexual assault, many victims report that they feel even worse when the college they love will not believe or help them.

“Regardless of the measure you use…too many rapes are happening on our college campuses today, and not enough justice is being delivered,” Ms. Gillibrand said.

The senator compared the problem of sexual assaults on campuses to the same scourge in the military, an issue on which she has been vocal. In both cases, she said, “you have an institutional bias—you have an institution that is holding all the cards.”

The question of whether campuses ought to be in the business of investigation sexual assault, a criminal act, is one many activists and advocates have raised. But Ms. Gillibrand and others on the panel acknowledged that some women may not feel comfortable approaching police.

“The ideal is that every survivor would be comfortable going to the police, if she wanted to,” she said.

Still, Ms. Gillibrand emphasized sex assault is a crime, typically committed by recidivist offenders, and should be treated as such, rather than an indiscretion.

“If we can’t stand up and say we’re going to fight against criminal behavior, than we have something wrong,” she said.

Ms. Weingarten agreed: “This is a crime. Sexual assault is a crime, and it needs to be treated as a crime—not as, ‘this is what boys will do,'” she said.