“If you were telling the truth about this, God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”

Patrick Henry College

Patrick Henry College (Photo: MikeCardew/KRT/Newscom via The New Republic)

Kiera Feldman has a disturbing piece in The New Republic on sexual assault at Patrick Henry College, aka “God’s Harvard,” a tiny elite evangelical school “with an outsized influence as a training ground for the religious right and a pipeline to conservative jobs in Washington.”

The majority of PHC students have been homeschooled in the teachings of the Christian patriarchy movement, in which women are called on to “submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” A “main drive behind the founding of PHC,” Feldman reports, “was the demand from homeschooling parents for a college that promoted courtship culture, in which male students ask female students’ fathers for permission to ‘court’ with marriage in mind.” All students pledge to “reserve sexual activity for marriage, shun sexually explicit material, and seek parental counsel when pursuing a romantic relationship,” according to the student handbook. 

But the self-policing of courtship culture usually falls to women. Duh. Our sexy impure bodies have had the dark power to tempt even good Christian boys–who, after all, are only human!–off the path of God since time immemorial. As journalist Kathryn Joyce, who has done a lot of investigative work on the movement, explains, ”The lack of men’s responsibility or culpability for their own actions and the acceptance of male ‘urges’ as irresistible forces of nature is the understructure of Christian modesty movements and their secular counterpart.”

As you can probably imagine, this culture makes PHC a rough place for victims of sexual assault. Feldman interviewed numerous female students who reported assaults to the administration, were discouraged from bringing the crimes to the police (“He’s a nice boy. Are you sure you want to report this?”) and generally felt that “school officials blamed them instead of holding the accused male students accountable.”

The administration, they say, seemed much more concerned with protecting Patrick Henry’s pristine public image.

“Basically, my issue was swept under the rug, and the assaulter received little else but a reprimand,” says a young woman who attended Patrick Henry between 2004 and 2008. The student fell asleep at an off-campus party where there had been drinking and was awoken by a male PHC student assaulting her. She says she reported the incident to Patrick Henry. “The administration encouraged me to not go to the police and said that, because alcohol was involved and I was violating the rules there, they hinted that I could be expelled if I brought light to the incident,” the student says. “The focus was the alcohol. I drank. I sinned. I deserved to be assaulted in the middle of the night.”

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, says she was raped the summer before her freshman year. When she arrived at PHC in the fall of 2007, she was deeply depressed and cutting herself. She was summoned to Corbitt’s office. “I remember her smiling a lot in a forced, insincere way while she was telling me that ‘someone’ had relayed to her my ‘issues,’ and the ‘administration was concerned about my ability to successfully complete the semester,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. The dean insisted that she take a psychological evaluation, then called her back to the Office of Student Life, got her parents on speakerphone, and made her tell them about the assault. When she choked up, the student says, Corbitt cut in to finish the job. Then the dean informed her parents that she was unfit for PHC and needed to be retrieved immediately. Her father flew out the following day and whisked her away, says the student.

In the spring of 2008, another young woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity says she made a sexual-harassment report to Corbitt. A male student was sending threatening messages, including an e-mail that conveyed that “he wanted to forcibly take my virginity,” she says. When she met with Corbitt to show her the e-mail, the student remembers the dean saying, “The choices you make and the people you choose to associate with, the way you try to portray yourself, will affect how people treat you.” In subsequent meetings, the student says Corbitt told her to think about her clothing and “the kinds of ideas it puts in men’s minds.”

The woman asked Corbitt to alert security and to keep an eye out for the student in question. Corbitt wouldn’t even consider it, the student says. In the end, “nothing came of it. The school consistently prioritizes keeping its spot-free image (necessary to maintain its far-right, hyper evangelical donor base happy), over the well being of its students,” she wrote in an e-mail.

PHC obviously isn’t unique in the way it seems to be failing its students. But, as Katie McDonough notes at Salon, “The confluence of its evangelical Christian worldview — which penalizes sex outside of marriage, strictly regulates women’s behavior and lauds men as God’s representatives on earth — and the broader institutional and cultural forces that silence victims and punish those who speak out has produced a devastating result for its female students.”

Read the rest of Feldman’s piece here.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    That article does a stellar job making the administration at Patrick Henry look like fanatical, right wing lunatics. Is it good journalism, though? I felt like it could have been significantly better, any article making accusations of this magnitude deserves at least a response or counterpoint from the administration or an alumni. A few people claiming to be alumni have responded in the comment section, which gives some interesting perspective (even if they don’t seem particularly sympathetic with the victims).

    To be fair, the article did at least attempt to contact the faculty, which surprisingly has continued to refuse interviews and not publish any semblance of a public response. Do they really think these concerns will just “go away” if they totally ignore them? Whether or not the college is guilty of enabling sexual violence, there’s no denying that their public relations management at the moment is absolutely atrocious.

    I do have an idea about why they may be so hesitant to even respond here.

    What we know about Patrick Henry College from their own words is that many influential members of their community seem to believe they are part of some sort of religious crusade against any form of social idealism that upsets the established norms. “Ideologies” is in fact a dirty word according to Stephen Baskerville, a professor at the college and the author of the speech given at the college which was linked to in the news article:

    “Though they claim to advance rights, or equality, or justice – values that in their place may be seductively legitimate – the real aim is power – or as currently phrased,“empowerment.” In comparison with this shared common goal, differences in content are secondary. This is why alliances are readily formed between seemingly incompatible agendas: Hitler and Stalin, or Islamists and feminists.”

    Aside from being borderline crackpottery and dripping with unjustified venom towards feminism (as is the rest of the article), the speaker is unwilling to admit that working towards any level of moral standards is exactly what an “ideology” is all about. Simply by defending their policies would force them to acknowledge that they are not some divinely authorized entity above the spectrum of moral and political debates, and force them to take a moral stand on equal grounds with the feminists and environmentalists and the other “ideologies” they so readily despise.

    Personally, I think it’s a necessary reality check.

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