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The Vanderbilt trial shows why bystanders have no incentive to stop rape

Former Vanderbilt football player Chris Boyd, who was cut from the team after pleading guilty to being an accessory after the fact to rape
Former Vanderbilt football player Chris Boyd, who was cut from the team after pleading guilty to being an accessory after the fact to rape
(Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the problem of "rape culture": what it is, whom it harms, how to fight it.

But until now, there has been a tragic gap in that coverage. There's no rape culture etiquette guide. Thousands, if not millions, of bros have been left with no proper guidance as to the behavioral conventions for people who are not rapists themselves, but do not want to unduly impinge on their friends' rape agendas.

Clearly there is an opening for an Emily Post of Rape Culture, someone to instruct us on the finer points of what it means to live in a society in which sexual violence is normalized; the burden of preventing it is placed on victims but not on perpetrators or bystanders; and there are rarely serious consequences for facilitating, concealing, or even committing rape.

But until one arrives, the recent Vanderbilt University rape case offers a number of helpful tips. After all, although the four men accused of committing that 2013 rape are facing jail time — two of them have been convicted, and the other two have been charged and are awaiting trial — their friends who admitted in court that they enabled the crime during and after the fact have received punishments ranging from "almost nothing" to "literally nothing." Their actions are a perfect primer for How to Succeed in Rape Culture Without Really Trying.

If your roommate is hosting a gang rape of an unconscious woman mere feet from your bed, protect his feelings by pretending to be asleep

The facts of the case are horrifying. According to prosecutors and witness testimony, Brandon Vandenburg, then a member of the Vanderbilt football team, asked fellow players Cory Batey, Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie, and Brandon Banks to help him bring an unconscious young woman into his dorm room. McKenzie testified that once they arrived in the room, Vandenburg said "we're going to fuck this bitch" and handed out condoms to the group.

The victim was then sexually assaulted for approximately thirty minutes. The men documented their own crimes by taking photographs and videos with their phones. That footage, which showed the victim lying totally unresponsive as she was violated, proved to be crucial at Vandenburg and Batey's trial. They were both convicted of aggravated rape. Banks and McKenzie testified against them and are awaiting trial on similar charges.

But there was another person in the room with them during the assault: Mack Prioleau, Vandenburg's roommate.

Prioleau was asleep on the top bunk when the men brought their unconscious victim into the room, and woke up when they turned on the lights. McKenzie testified that Vandenburg tried to wake Prioleau up to let him know what was about to happen. Prioleau himself testified that knew exactly what was going on: he saw the victim lying on the floor, partially clothed and unconscious, and although he rolled over and pretended to be asleep, he could still hear everything that was going on. "I was scared and uncomfortable and didn't know what to do," he said. So he lay still and tried to go back to sleep as the assault took place just a few feet away.

Prioleau apparently concluded that, when faced with a choice between enabling a rape and having an awkward conversation with your roommate, it is only polite to choose the former. He testified that he never intervened to stop the assault. "I was trying to sleep," he testified. "Not think about it." Indeed, he never even tried to distract the rapists with a suggestion of an alternative activity. ("Hey guys you know what I hear is cool? Doing literally anything other than brutally violating a woman, how about you do that instead.")

Prioleau didn't help the victim after the rape either. He testified that he left after the assault and slept in a friend's room, but he never alerted the police, called an ambulance for the victim, or checked on her wellbeing.

He also admitted during his testimony that he helped to cover up the crime by texting Jacob Shultz, another member of the football team, to keep his "mouth shut" about the rape. Prioleau also mopped the floor of the dorm room the day after the assault, removing the victim's vomit and presumably other physical evidence as well. What a helpful friend!

Judging from the consequences of his actions, he made the right decision. Prioleau has not been charged with any crime. Although he is no longer on the football team, a university spokesperson confirmed that he was not dismissed from the team for conduct issues. He is still a student at the university.

The rules of friendship require that you pick up a half-naked unconscious rape victim from the hallway where your friends left her and return her to her rapist’s bed.

After the assault, Vandenburg and his friends dumped the partially-clothed and still-unconscious victim on the floor of the hallway outside their dorm room. Multiple people saw her there. None of them helped her.

Football player Dillon Van der Wal testified that he saw the woman lying on the floor, partially naked. She was a friend of his. He left her lying there. He let Vandenburg sleep in his room that night, during which time Vandenburg discussed the assault, said that there was video footage of the crime, and admitted that he had flushed multiple condoms down the toilet.

Two other teammates, Chris Boyd and DeAndre Woods, by contrast, took a more active role: Woods testified that they picked up the victim by her ankles and shoulders, carried her back into Vandenburg's room, and left her in his bed.

None of the men called an ambulance for the victim or reported the assault. Van der Wal and Woods both stayed on the football team and kept their scholarships. (Woods is still on the team, Van der Wal played in 2014 but has now exhausted his athletic eligibility.) They are, needless to say, still students at Vanderbilt.

Boyd was removed from the team after his guilty plea to charges that he was an accessory after the fact to the crime, but he initially retained his athletic scholarship. (Vanderbilt confirmed that Boyd eventually lost his scholarship after fall 2013, but would not confirm the date, or the reason he lost it.) He is still a student at Vanderbilt. He attended the Dallas Cowboys training camp in 2014 and still hopes to play in the NFL.

The lesson here is pretty clear: if faced with a choice of assisting a rape victim or assisting her rapist, kids, choose the latter. It will work out fine for you.

Nothing says "I'm a chill bro" like orchestrating the cover-up of a violent sexual assault

Boyd also took an active role in covering up the crime. He texted Vandenburg instructions to delete the video of the assault, and to make sure that everyone else did also. The Tennessean reports that Boyd sent Vandenburg a text saying "Tell ur boys to delete that (expletive). I’m looking out for your ass;" and to "tell your roommate he didn’t see (expletive)."

Boyd initially lied to the police about the crime, but later changed his story in exchange for a plea deal. He pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact to rape, and agreed to testify against Vandenburg and Batey at trial.

Boyd's punishment for orchestrating the coverup of a gang rape? One year of unsupervised probation. If he completes it successfully, his record will be expunged.

And as noted above, Boyd is still a student at Vanderbilt.

Rape culture in action

Prioleau, Boyd, Banks, and Van der Wal were not rapists. There is no indication that they had any specifically evil intentions toward the victim. At least one of them knew her and considered her a friend. Nor is there any suggestion that they were coerced into covering up the crime, or threatened with any kind of violence.

And yet all of them decided that the path of least resistance was to side with the rapists over their victim. They willingly helped cover up the crime, and none of them seem to have given the slightest thought to the victim's safety or wellbeing. Prioleau literally would not even get out of bed to stop the gang rape that was taking place just a few feet away from him.

The worst part is that their assessment of the situation and the likely consequences of their actions was, in essence, quite correct. None of their educations have been disrupted. Only one was kicked off the football team, and that was only after he pled guilty to a crime. The men have presumably suffered social consequences because the case turned out to be so high profile, but that was never certain at the time — unlike the immediate social discomfort the men would have encountered if they had tried to stop the rape, or called the police or an ambulance.

It should be noted that Vanderbilt was in some ways very active in its response to the assault. It was the university that contacted the police about the attack after seeing suspicious footage on a hallway camera, not the victim. And within a week of the assault, the university had suspended the four students accused of committing the rape, and dismissed them from the football team.

But the school appears to be unwilling to impose serious consequences on any students who weren't charged with a crime. The men who helped cover up the rape are all still students. Boyd was the only one cut from the football team because of his actions — and even that didn't happen until after his guilty plea.

The school said in a statement that Boyd's "admitted actions are clearly inconsistent with the high standards of behavior expected of our student-athletes." But what could those standards be? It is difficult to see how Prioleau, Woods, or Van der Wal's actions could meet anyone's "high standard" for anything.

Rape culture, everyone. It's real. And the terrible incentives it creates for bystanders are one of its most insidious effects.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Chris Boyd was still on an athletic scholarship. Around the time that Boyd was removed from the football team, a Vanderbilt spokesperson said that he had retained his scholarship, but the school has since clarified that Boyd has not held an athletic scholarship since fall 2013. The piece has been updated to reflect that change.