In the two years since her explosive gang-rape story shocked the country, “Jackie” has been a cornerstone in our national debate about campus sexual assault and is currently at the center of defamation suit filed against Rolling Stone, which published the now-discredited article on her alleged sexual assault.
Yet the full identity of the University of Virginia student who, evidence suggests, may have fabricated a harrowing story to a Rolling Stone reporter, remains an open secret: While known to many people, Jackie’s full name continues to be protected by both the court and the mainstream media.
The media’s decision not to expose Jackie’s full identity rests on a long-standing journalistic standard against naming alleged victims of sexual assault, so as to protect their privacy and livelihoods. Likewise the court’s decision to allow Jackie to remain pseudonymous during trial proceedings in the defamation suit brought by former UVA dean Nicole Eramo, who once counseled Jackie as an alleged survivor, against Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely, the journalist who failed to do due diligence in reporting Jackie’s story.
Indeed, Erdely admitted to relying almost entirely on Jackie—a single, unreliable source—to mount a series of damning accusations against UVA, Eramo, and Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed she was raped (Phi Kappa Psi’s $25 million defamation suit against Rolling Stone is scheduled to go to trial next year).
But given that many aspects of Jackie’s story have repeatedly been shown to be false, through reporting following the article’s publication and a subsequent, extensive police investigation, does protecting her identity now seem questionable?
Police found no evidence to corroborate Jackie’s story that she was assaulted at Phi Kappa Psi or any other fraternity, as she told Dean Eramo, friends, and Erdely, giving inconsistent accounts to these parties.
Instead, they found evidence suggesting she’d serially lied about various details of her alleged assault, some of which weren’t included in the Rolling Stone article. Jackie’s roommate denied pulling shards of glass from Jackie’s face, as Jackie said she’d done, after claiming male bullies on campus threw a bottle at her after the alleged assault; Jackie also claimed she’d phoned her mother after she was hit by the bottle, but phone records showed no calls were placed at the time.
Police determined there was no party at Phi Kappa Psi on Sept. 28, 2012, the night of her alleged assault, and found no evidence that “Haven Monahan,” the junior Jackie told friends she’d been on a date with the night she was supposedly raped, is a real person.
Eramo’s attorneys have presented texts in court filings between “Monahan” and Jackie’s friend Ryan Duffin, arguing that they were part of a catfishing scheme by Jackie to win Duffin’s affections.
Yet we don’t know for sure that Jackie isn’t a victim of sexual assault. After concluding a five-month investigation, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo made it clear that just because they found no evidence of the rape and other violence she described to Rolling Stone, “that doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie… we’re just not able to gather sufficient facts to determine what that is.”
Jackie and her attorneys have consistently maintained that she is a victim of sexual assault, though they’ve provided no evidence or further details in court filings beyond simply claiming victimhood.
In a deposition played before the court earlier this week, Jackie—whose face was not shown to jurors—occasionally contradicted her own testimony. At one moment she suggested Rolling Stone had “skewed” her words and that she remembered reading the story and “thinking I probably would not have written it that way”; at another, she said she stood by the account she gave the magazine and “believed it to be true at the time.”
When asked if she still believed her story to be true, Jackie replied that she has “PTSD and it’s foggy,” attributing her memory issues to trauma resulting from her alleged assault. Critics have argued that her fogginess is convenient, given that she wasn’t foggy when recalling her story to The Washington Post following the Rolling Stone article’s publication—two years after the alleged assault.
Yet strange as it is for a person at the center of this lawsuit (though neither a defendant nor the plaintiff) to remain unidentified both in court and in the media, it’s debatable whether naming her would serve the public.
“Jackie’s allegations and interactions with the reporter are absolutely critical in the case, but publishing her name for the whole world to see is a different issue altogether,” said Robert Drechsel, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Drechsel noted that, for the time being, he couldn’t articulate any overwhelming public interest in identifying her.
“There might be future developments in the case which could change that, but it seems the right thing to do at this point is to not name her,” he said.
The judge presiding over the case has taken the same position, since she’s referenced only as “Jackie” in court documents.
Andrew S. Boutros, a former federal prosecutor and national co-chairman of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s White Collar Group, said courts are careful not to subject alleged victims of sex crimes to additional scrutiny or to victimize the victim again.
The same rule generally applies in cases like Eramo v. Rolling Stone, where Jackie—the alleged sexual assault victim—is a central witness rather than a plaintiff.
“Courts are very mindful of policy implications and will insist on certain rules that will transcend one particular case in order to avoid the potential for a ‘slippery slope’ scenario,” he noted. “These same policies sometimes apply in other areas, such as in prosecutions of street gangs or cartel members, where the government will also seek to ensure the anonymity and safety of cooperating sources by avoiding having them named in open court or any court documents.”
The fact that this case is so unusual gives the judge all the more reason to not name Jackie, which could set a precedent on a rare case and potentially loosen policy standards.
One case for Jackie to come forward herself is that doing so might change the climate of silence and shame surrounding sexual assault and rape.
Take, for instance, the cascading number of women who have publicly accused Donald Trump of sexual assault and misconduct since the first woman went on the record in The New York Times saying Trump assaulted her.
Or Chessy Prout, the former student at St. Paul’s School who appeared on the Today show with her family to contradict the not-guilty verdict handed down to Owen Labrie: No matter what the jury said, Labrie had raped her.
Geneva Overholser, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 series in the Des Moines Register about an Iowa woman who was raped (the woman, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, gave Overholser permission to use her full name in the story), has since argued that the standard of not identifying accusers “is a particular slice of silence that I believe has consistently undermined society’s attempts to deal effectively with rape,” and that not naming victims hasn’t seemed to reduce the number of unreported sexual assaults.
“The longstanding nudge (by journalists and others) toward anonymity that women who have been raped have been experiencing has no doubt comforted some, at least for a period,” she writes. “But, increasingly, the underside of this approach even for the individual is acknowledged. Painful as the truth can be, absorbing the notion that you can’t tell it can be worse.”