Sound-Off: Hannah Graham and the Assault on College Women

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Daniella Gibbs Léger discusses the University of Virginia student's disappearance, victim shaming, and more in her latest sound-off.

For the past two weeks, the media has been covering the disappearance of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. She was last seen walking alone along the downtown mall in Charlottesville, with a person of interest (now a suspect in custody) seen walking behind her. While police have arrested the man in the video, we still do not know what happened to Graham, where she is, or what the circumstances were around her disappearance. I have wondered if this case would get so much coverage if Hannah was not a pretty white woman, as we know that cases of missing women of color get much less attention. Probably not. But I think the fact that she lives outside of the nation’s capital and goes to school not too far away has something to do with the publicity it has received.

This story hits close to home for me. I graduated from the University of Virginia, what seems like ages ago in the late 90’s. When the news media discussed the details of her disappearance, it was all very familiar to me. The downtown mall, the partying, what it was like to be a first year student; the memories came flooding back. My parents happened to be visiting me last week and this case sparked an intense conversation with my mother. My parents are older and don’t do internet, so I feel safe letting you all know that my mom is definitely on the conservative, old fashioned side, liberal as her politics may be. She was asking me questions like “why did she leave the party without her friends.” Our conversation went something like this:

Mom: Why was she out walking alone at that hour?

Me: Who knows, Mom. She may have been tired, annoyed or drunk and just wanted to go.

Mom: Why would she be drinking? She’s only a first year.

Me: Seriously? She’s in college. What do you think college kids do on the weekends?

Mom: (incredulous) Go out and get drunk?

Me: Not necessarily drunk, but yes, they drink. Sometimes they get drunk.


Me: What do you think? Let me tell you. There were many instances where the smart lovely people you know today made some DUMB decisions. They left parties we attended together alone, they walked home alone because they didn’t want to wait for the student van. 18 year olds make dumb decisions all the time (as do 19-100 year olds). That doesn’t give anyone the right to take advantage of them.

Mom: Well, I agree with that last part.

When any high profile abduction or assault case happens against a woman, the same types of questions are raised. What was she doing? Who was she with? What time did she disappear? I understand the desire to ask these questions. It’s human nature to want to understand the circumstances around Hannah’s disappearance. But those are the wrong questions to ask, and they smack of victim blaming.

It is something that happens all too often in sexual assault cases. The burden to prevent an attack is placed on the woman. What was she wearing, why was she out so late, why did she walk/dance with/talk to him if she wasn’t interested? The only question that should be asked is why did the attacker attack? Why did no NOT mean no? And how can we get people to stop attacking and abusing women?

Last week the White House, in partnership with my colleagues at Generation Progress, launched the It’s On Us campaign. This campaign takes these issues head on, putting the onus on the rest of us – NOT the victim – to stop sexual assault. The campaign has the power of the White House and countless celebrities behind it and lists several tips to both help prevent sexual assault and help those who have been a victim. It is an important step in changing the culture that currently exists. I am all for giving women all the important safety information and tools they need to live their lives. But we need to stop blaming women for being victims and turn our energies on punishing those who commit the crimes in the first place.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for Communications and Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123

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