Why It Was Right to Question Rolling Stone’s U-VA Rape Story
Editor’s Note: On Friday, Rolling Stone said it went too far in trusting an alleged rape victim at the University of Virginia. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
The story was so appalling, the attack so brutish and morally offensive, that it provoked an immediate, furious response. The university faculty banded together to sign letters demanding action; Charlottesville’s archipelago of off-campus fraternity houses would be scuppered for the rest of the semester, perhaps longer; the national and international media turned their focus toward the University of Virginia, for precisely the wrong reasons.
All of this was provoked by an eye-popping and stomach-churning story in the latest issue of Rolling Stone that details a 2012 gang rape at a university fraternity house.
Here are the broad contours of the alleged assault, as reported by Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely: As a freshman in her first month at the University of Virginia, 18-year-old Jackie attended a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, the guest of a handsome upperclassman whom Erdely pseudonymously identifies as “Drew.” Soon after her arrival, a very sober Jackie is led upstairs by Drew, hustled into a pitch-dark room, and set upon by a wolfpack of sexual sadists.
She says that seven men took turns raping her, while two others, including Drew, watched, shouting encouragement and abuse at their fellow psychopaths.
The entire ordeal, according to the Rolling Stone account, lasted a staggering three hours, during which Jackie was thrown through a glass table (and sexually assaulted while pinned on a bed of broken glass), punched in the face, repeatedly raped, and brutally penetrated with a beer bottle.
In the aftermath of the assault, Erdely says that Jackie was abandoned not only by Virginia administrators, but her friends (one apparently discouraged her from reporting the rape because “we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again”; another asked her why she didn’t “have fun with it…[with a] bunch of hot Phi Psi guys”; another called her a “baby” ), and her own family (a comment Erdely made in a subsequent radio interview, though not in her original story).
Even the community of rape survivors at the University of Virginia, Erdely told Slate, “are totally devoted to the university” and “buy into the notion…that doing nothing [in response to sexual assault] is a fine option.”
The environment became so toxic, she claims, that in 2014 a fellow student caller her a “feminazi” and “flung a bottle…that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.” Whether this more recent assault was reported to the police, or if Jackie knows the identity of the assailant, is left undiscussed and unanswered by Erdely.
As a result of the Rolling Stone report, Virginia quickly suspended all fraternity activities for the semester, toughened its sexual assault policies, and referred Jackie’s case to the local police. Erdely writes that the university hadn’t previously investigated the alleged gang rape—nor do they appear willing to waste time investigating this time around.
University Rector George Keith Martin publically apologized to Jackie: “I would like to say to Jackie and her family that I’m sorry.” Dean Teresa A. Sullivan praised the “overwhelming response by this community to condemn the evil acts” reported by Rolling Stone.
But in the weeks since her blockbuster story, Erdely’s reporting—and certain details of the story—have come under intense scrutiny from journalists and commentators across the political spectrum.
Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple knocked Erdely’s failure to interview any of the nine men Jackie accused of participating in the attack. (Wemple does a good job outlining the main journalistic objections to the piece here, which he derides as “flimsy” and full of “half-hearted” reporting.)
And despite her recent claims that she was merely telling Jackie’s story, her initial defense was that she was, in essence, not a particularly dogged reporter: “[The nine men] were kind of hard to get in touch with because their contact page was pretty outdated, but I wound up speaking…with their local president who sent me an email and then I talked with their national guy who’s kind of like their national crisis manager.”
At Slate, Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin subtly and methodically picked apart Erdely’s strange journalistic methodology, while also questioning certain incongruities in her story.
Even Erdely herself has retreated from fully accepting Jackie’s story, now saying that “there’s no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened, you know, I wasn’t in that room (emphasis added).” Rolling Stone has since issued a carefully worded statement similarly distancing itself from Jackie’s claims, saying that they found her “credible” but stopping far short of declaring her story to be carefully vetted and judged to be true.
So allow me the enormous, should-be-obvious caveat (that will nevertheless be ignored): I obviously have even less of an idea what happened inside that fraternity house. Indeed, it’s possible that Jackie is telling the ugly, unvarnished truth.
But what if that charges are false? Outside the ideological fever swamps, most skepticism has been respectful and reasoned (though Rolling Stone’s mainstream defenders often aren’t).
One cannot wade into issues like this, it seems, without standing accused of wanting to uncover a hoax in an order to deny the existence of sexual assault on campus. On the cruder end, those investigating Jackie’s claims are being denounced as “rape denialists” complicit in “rape victim smearing.”
That word “denialism” is particularly profane, with its unsubtle invocation of the Holocaust. And it doesn’t take long for subtlety to be ditched in favor of the blunt instrument of Reductio ad Hitlerum.
Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte tweeted that “it’s really time for people to understand that rape denialism is like Holocaust denialism: a broad refusal to face reality.” It’s unclear what constitutes denialism (are Hanna Rosin and Erik Wemple the Ernst Zündel and David Irving of rape culture?), and if a natural skepticism of a story that should raise eyebrows automatically casts one in the league of drooling fascists.
Do I even need to point out that we only have Jackie’s account of that evening at Phi Kappa Psi and not, say, the voluminous documentation—film, photographs, first-hand witnesses, party archives, trial transcripts—of the Final Solution?
If comparisons to fanatical anti-Semites seem like a bit of heavy-breathing, how about the parallels with those who believe the United States government (or Mossad) killed 3,000 American citizens on September 11? On Twitter, New York magazine contributing editor Marin Cogan dismissed those casting doubt on the Rolling Stone story as “UVA truthers.”
If you think something doesn’t smell right about the story, keep those doubts to yourself; if not, get ready to be accused of being complicit in creating a culture of fear that silences rape victims.
A day after publishing a slightly skeptical take on the story by feminist writer Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister denounced such skepticism as “symptomatic of exactly the patterns of incredulity and easy dismissal of rape accusations that keep many assaulted women and men from ever bringing their stories to authorities or to the public.”
A University of Virginia activist quoted in the Rolling Stone piece later told her campus newspaper that those questioning Jackie’s account “discourage reporting [rape] when they make comments that don’t support survivors.”
A writer in the Los Angeles Times declaimed one columnist’s criticism of the story as “the type of ill-informed berating that makes victims of sexual assault afraid to come forward in the first place.” The New Republic’s version of this sentiment: “Those who have been assaulted or raped should feel that telling their stories will not automatically result in their own character assassination…” And New York magazine: “Their skepticism of writer Sabrina Erdely mirrors the disproportionate scrutiny that sexual assault victims face at the hands of the police.”
If these writers are urging something other than holding one’s tongue, I’m not sure exactly what they are suggest writers do when certain bits of evidence don’t add up. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t approach these issues with extreme sensitivity—quite the contrary—but the idea that journalists should abandon skepticism in the face of hugely important and consequential claims made in Rolling Stone is an abrogation of one’s duty as a journalist.
And what if the name of the accused rapists leak online, which we can expect will soon happen? If they are innocent—and they are until proven otherwise—is this just an unfortunate cost of always believing those making accusations?
Back in the 1990s, a dean at Vassar College told Time magazine that a false accusation is not only an acceptable price to pay, but might even benefit the falsely accused: “[The wrongly accused] have a lot of pain, but it is not a pain that I would necessarily have spared them. I think it ideally initiates a process of self-exploration. ‘How do I see women?’ ‘If I didn’t violate her, could I have?’ ‘Do I have the potential to do to her what they say I did?’ Those are good questions.”
There is, though, one point on which everyone can hopefully agree: if Jackie’s story proves to be false (or a dramatic overstatement of a still terrifying trauma), the damage done to those fighting the scourge of campus sexual violence will be incalculable. Because if accusations are never met with circumspection, prepare to see an increase in those who believe that all accusations are untrustworthy.