Everybody Hurts

What the U-VA Rape Case Tells Us About a Victim Culture Gone Mad

Rolling Stone’s admission that its college rape story contained ‘discrepancies’ shows how victim-centric our culture has become—to the exclusion of asking vital questions.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

When Rolling Stone first published its explosive story detailing University of Virginia student Jackie’s alleged gang-rape by seven fraternity brothers, few in the mainstream media doubted its veracity.

But, much worse, Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely seemed determined to tell a gang-rape victim’s sensational story—more dramatic lede means more clicks—that she did not do due diligence as a journalist, neglecting to contact Jackie’s alleged assailants in deference to the rape victim.

And by giving blind faith to Jackie’s story, Erdely obfuscated some of the truth, leading Rolling Stone to acknowledge “discrepancies in Jackie’s account” on Friday.

“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana wrote in a statement.

And therein lies the problem: in valorizing Jackie’s trauma as a victim of rape (never mind that she was and remains an alleged victim), Rolling Stone ignored glaring holes in a story that was too good to check.

Erdely’s story did damage to the University of Virginia’s reputation, but more importantly, the story has done a tragic disservice to other victims of sexual violence who might be prevented from coming forward out of fear that their stories will have to withstand the scrutiny and default skepticism of police, university officials, and reporters.

Rolling Stone should be shamed for egregiously poor reporting, failing to fact-check important details like the date of the night Jackie claimed she was violently raped for three hours in a Phi Kappa Psi frat house (the fraternity did not, in fact, host a party that evening).

But of the hundreds of thousands, including journalists, who read the Rolling Stone story, few noticed Erdely’s failure to interview any of the seven men who participated in the attack on Jackie or corroborate many of the other easily corroborated details she reported.

When journalists did scrutinize what they viewed as weak and one-sided reporting, they were met with accusations of victim-blaming. Some likened their skepticism of Erdely’s piece to police casting undeserved doubt on an alleged rape victim’s story.

When Worth magazine Editor in Chief Richard Bradley voiced his skepticism in a blogpost, he was immediately declared a “UVA truther” by New York magazine contributing writer Marin Cogan, who compared him to 9/11 conspiracy theorists for even questioning Erdely’s story, despite including plenty of caveats that she might be telling the truth.

Cogan has since apologized for using the term and acknowledged she was wrong about the story.

Jezebel’s Anna Marian attacked Reason writer Robby Soave for taking a similar stance as Bradley (in Marian’s words, Coave “takes Bradley’s giant ball of shit and runs with it.”) Marian too has since apologized, acknowledging that she was “dead fucking wrong.”

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But others, like feminist writer Amanda Marcotte, have merely shifted focus to how “rape apologists” will greet the news of Rolling Stone’s admission of their report’s shortcomings, while still believing Jackie’s story (“Recommend everyone who expects victims to have perfect memory sit down and construct, word for word, the last dinner conversation they had,” she tweeted after Rolling Stone’s statement).

The lesson Marcotte drew from the magazine’s climbdown was that it was “interesting that rape apologists think that if they can ‘discredit’ one rape story, that means no other rape stories can be true, either.” She cited no examples. While others were debating the failings of Rolling Stone’s process, Marcotte was railing against “rape apologists [who] are so sure rapes are hoaxes...”

In an appearance on HuffPo Live, Marcotte took aim at those demanding more reporting of Jackie’s story, which she claims is actually meant to prevent victims from coming forward: “The irony is that all these accusations that all the facts aren’t out are aimed at discouraging investigation and reporting things that gets the facts out.”

Still others attempted to turn the focus away from Jackie onto the magazine that credulously told her story. The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti excoriated Rolling Stone on Twitter: “Kudos on throwing this young woman under the bus for your failures. Assholes.” Their failures were many, but if her story doesn’t check out, shouldn’t “this young woman” be thrown under the bus?

Of course Rolling Stone’s reputation should—and has—suffered from the Jackie debacle. And it will likely have a disastrous effect on Erdely’s career.

But writers like Marcotte and Valenti still cast Jackie as a victim, despite the growing evidence casting serious doubt on her story. (Valenti tweeted that Rolling Stone’s backing away from the story and new evidence provided by the fraternity “DOES NOT mean this woman lied about being raped—many victims have trouble recounting details of trauma”).

We live in a culture that valorizes victims—where to question one woman’s claims of sexual abuse is to be a “rape apologist,” someone who effectively dismisses heinous crime under any and all circumstances. If Jackie is lying, she will likely—and sadly—suffer for it. And she has already put herself in an unenviable position by reaffirming her version of events as described to Rolling Stone in a subsequent interview with The Washington Post. “What bothers me is that so many people act like it didn’t happen,” she said. “It’s my life. I have had to live with the fact that it happened every day for the last two years.”

The problem with valorizing the victim, as a “victim culture” does, is that anything that runs contrary to the victim’s narrative is cast as an attack on that person.

Question them, and you are colluding in exacerbating the awful effects of their trauma. Question their actions or motives and you are “victim shaming” and “victim blaming.” Of course, the flip-side of a victim is a bully, and it is notable that today, everyone rushes to be a victim—the right wing under attack from the left, the left under attack from the right, bigots still seeking to attack gay people, and claiming they cannot voice their bigotry.

“Playing the victim” used to be a term of scorn, now it’s a daily modus operandi to score any number of political and cultural points.

Question those taking on the mantle of victimhood and you are immediately cast as some kind of aggressive, unfeeling oppressor. The sad consequence of a culture of victimhood is that it obscures real victims and obscures the genuinely felt experiences of those victims, whatever they have endured.

In the case of Jackie and the University of Virginia, while journalists and pundits take positions based on what best suits their cause, the rest of us might never know what—if anything—happened to her that night in 2012. We only know that the story she originally told Rolling Stone was not entirely true—and, as a result, the issue of sexual assault on campuses is now even more warped.