Broken Glass and Broken Trust: Lessons to Learn from UVA

By: Derek Ko and Steven Glick

Sabrina Erdely published a story in Rolling Stone magazine on November 19 describing the brutal gang rape of Jackie, a student at the University of Virginia. The rape occurs after Jackie goes to a date function at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Jackie had met her date, referred to in the story as “Drew,” at the university’s pool, where they worked together as lifeguards. Erdely reports that, after going upstairs with Drew, Jackie is tripped onto a glass table, which shatters on impact. The article then goes on to describe a horrifying incidence of sexual violence against Jackie in which she is punched in the face and raped by seven men as three others “gave instruction and encouragement” over the course of three hours.

When Jackie finally leaves the party, bleeding and covered in broken shards of glass, she seeks out her friends for help. However, her friends only exacerbate the situation, instructing Jackie not to seek medical attention lest she become, “the girl who cried ‘rape,’” and they are “never allowed into any frat party again.”

The shocking story galvanized anti-rape activists and feminists from across the country. In response to the story, the university suspended all fraternity activities until January. Protests broke out on the UVA campus in which students marched holding signs emblazoned with such slogans as “UVA, Stop Hiding Rape” and “Men of Honor Do Not Rape.” The Phi Psi house at UVA was vandalized, with windows broken and messages such as “Suspend Us!” and “UVA Center For Rape Studies” graffitied on its walls.

A short while later, cracks in the story began to surface. Phi Kappa Psi released an official statement revealing that no party had taken place at their house on September 28, 2012, the day on which Jackie had allegedly been raped. Additionally, no member of the fraternity was found on the 2012 employee roster of the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center, which employs all lifeguards. More recently, The Washington Post has discovered upon further investigation that Jackie’s friends, referred to as “Randall,” “Cindy,” and “Andy” in the Rolling Stone article, had a vastly different account of their interactions with Jackie in the aftermath of her alleged rape. Among other things, they now claim that a photo Jackie had texted of her “date” that night was actually of a high school classmate of hers who attends a different university.

As Jackie’s account of her alleged rape has continued to unravel, many people have understandably become disappointed and even outraged by Erderly’s poor reporting. Multiple articles have since lamented the damage that the article has done to the credibility of genuine victims of sexual assault. Many others, such as a Huffington Post blog post written by Katie Racine entitled “Don’t Let Rolling Stone’s Bad Journalism Hurt the Anti-rape Movement,” have been written with a clearly defensive tone. “So what if this instance was more fictional than fact and didn’t actually happen to Jackie?” writes Racine. “Don’t let the holes in this story diminish your rage, do not let the fire burning across our schools and nation be smothered by shoddy journalism and a troubled and traumatized girl who has clearly suffered.”

Julia Horowitz of Politico.com wrote, in an article entitled “Why We Believed Jackie’s Rape Story,” that “to let fact-checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake… no matter if specifics of the article are true, …reading the article as a college student, you were thinking, ‘This could happen.’”

Horowitz is correct in one respect. The reason so many readers initially believed Jackie’s story was likely because sexual violence is still not as rare in our modern society as we would all hope. However, her assertion that fact-checking should not define “the narrative” is short-sighted and irresponsible.

There is an obvious elephant in the room that much of the anti-rape movement is not acknowledging. In their fervent and well-intentioned efforts to obtain justice for genuine victims, many anti-rape activists and advocates have lost sight of the importance of facts and evidence. We have been told for well over a decade by the mainstream feminist movement either that people never lie about being sexually assaulted, or that those who do make up such a trivial percentage that such cases are no cause for concern.

In the midst of these dominant narratives, hastily concocted state and federal regulations such as California’s recent “affirmative consent” law and the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ 2011 Dear Colleague Letter on sexual violence have been put into effect. Institutions of higher learning have been required to adhere to lower and lower standards of evidence while adjudicating cases of sexual assault on their campuses which they are woefully ill-equipped to handle in the first place. As a result, dubious cases of conviction and expulsion of alleged sexual assailants have multiplied, resulting in a litany of lawsuits filed against various colleges by those who claim to have been falsely accused and denied due-process. Caleb Warner’s suit against the University of North Dakota, John Doe’s suit against Occidental College, and Drew Sterret’s suit against the University of Michigan are just three such cases that have been covered in detail by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

These dysfunctional policies were not born out of an aversion to the rights of the accused or contempt for fair trials. They were drafted, lobbied for, and implemented by people who care deeply about sexual assault victims. However, they also originated from the fundamentally flawed view that society must accommodate the needs and wants of victims even at the cost of due process. Behind this mindset lies the fundamentalist feminist idea that the victim in cases of sexual assault must be unconditionally believed. Those who have dared to even question the wisdom of this assumption have often been the objects of shaming and ridicule and referred to as rape apologists.

In the immediate aftermath of Rolling Stone’s publication of Erdely’s article, blogger Richard Bradley wrote that “to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark—as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to—requires a lot of leaps of faith.” Robby Soave’s article in Reason magazine, “Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?” stated that, “This isn’t a case of he-said/she-said; this is an extraordinary crime that indicts a dozen people and an entire university administration. Assuming a proper investigation—which the police are now conducting—confirming many of the specific details should be relatively easy. If ‘Jackie’ is lying, there is a good chance she will be caught (and Erdely’s career ruined).”

Bradley and Soave’s articles were met with much criticism from feminist circles online. Jezebel published a response article titled, “‘Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?’ Asks Idiot,” in which the author, Anna Merlan, writes, “In summary, what we have here are two dudes who have some vague suspicions and, on that basis, are implying that Edeley either fabricated her story or failed to do her due diligence and didn’t fact check what Jackie told her.”

In even attempting to do the fact-checking that Erdely should have done in the first place, other journalists were initially slammed for having any doubts about Jackie’s story at all. In a social climate where merely investigating the claims of a sexual assault victim is considered heretical, it really should come as no surprise that Rolling Stone’s UVA article was so widely believed by other media sites or even published to begin with.

To be sure, when our friends seek out our support, we should never doubt the authenticity of their trauma and suffering. We should never demand to interview the alleged perpetrator or thoroughly investigate the incident before fully believing a friend’s account of his/her sexual assault.

However, as friends and confidantes of sexual assault victims on campus, we are neither prosecutors nor law enforcement officers nor reporters for a national publication. When someone privately shares his or her experiences of sexual violence with us, it is not our professional duty to adhere to strict journalistic standards or to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We do not have the power to expel someone from an institution of higher learning. We do not decide whether or not to put another human being behind bars for a significant portion of his or her life. We, unlike Erdely do not report for a publication with a readership of millions. For us, Erdely, or anyone else to personally believe the accounts of sexual assault victims is not a problem. In fact, this kind of trust is essential to being a good friend and advocate for sexual assault survivors. The problem with Erdely is not that she believed Jackie’s story, but that she carried her personal trust in Jackie into her work as a journalist whose actions have wide-reaching consequences. In the professional world, verifiable facts are all that do and should matter. In our legal system and our media, we cannot and should not expect alleged rape victims to be believed (and their perpetrators presumed guilty) by default.

The UVA debacle demonstrates the importance of separating the personal from the professional when listening to the stories of sexual assault survivors. Though Jackie’s particular case never resulted in a trial, it highlights the critical importance of due process and high evidentiary standards in addressing instances of sexual assault on college campuses. When these standards are lowered, even with the good intention of expediting justice for victims, the increased incidence of false accusations and unjust rulings is an inevitable result.

The fact that there are rare instances in which “victims” lie is an issue that must be addressed in a pragmatic way. When false convictions happen, the lives and reputations of those who are falsely accused suffer irreparable damage. When evidence of false accusations and incorrect rulings comes to light, it is real victims of sexual violence that are hurt the most. Despite the fact that fewer than one in ten rape accusations are likely false, the harm that they cause to the reputations of sexual assault survivors is disproportionate to their frequency. Though incidents like that of UVA are disheartening, they are important learning experiences. Through prudent discourse, a commitment to due process, and high standards of evidence, we can all work to preserve both the rights of the accused and the dignity of sexual assault survivors.
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Image Source: Flickr/Holger

10 thoughts on “Broken Glass and Broken Trust: Lessons to Learn from UVA”

  1. I am so glad the claremont independent had the sense to let two guys write this article. Women wouldn’t have been able to focus on the real issues at stake here like these guys have. We really need to hear more men talking about how this story made people, I’m sorry not all people just those feminists and anti rape activists, overreact. And totally the dominate narratives are that survivors are automatically believed and that needs to change.

    1. Because rape only affects women and men cannot be feminists and/or anti-rape activists? It seems like you are the sexist here, not the authors….

    2. I can assure you that this article was peer-edited by several members of the Claremont Independent staff (including two female editors) before it was put into print. I can also assure you that I personally know several people from across the gender/sexuality spectrum that have been assaulted and that I co-wrote this piece with their experiences in mind. Even among survivors, I have heard the sentiment expressed that our current system for adjudicating sexual assaults on college campuses is seriously flawed.

      If you disagree, I would urge you to rebutt the actual points outlined in the article and possibly formulate a solution of your own to the issue at hand. I would welcome the chance to hear another perspective and possibly even change my own. However, attacking my identity as a cis-male doesn’t get society any closer to attaining justice for victims or ensuring due process for the accused.

      1. Derek, you continue to demonstrate level-headedness and a willingness to hear alternative perspectives that may challenge your own. Keep it up! You’re a shining star in the Claremont Colleges, and more people should embody your dedication to pragmatism.

    3. To the sarcastic commentator above, why shouldn’t men respond to this issue? It’s not like men aren’t raped, don’t have a perspective on this issue, or don’t advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Moreover, You attack this article simply because the authors are two guys, without knowing them, or their past experiences.
      I am very appreciative to the authors of this article for writing a controversial article that should encourage dialogue and introduce a new perspective on this issue. I hope instead of mocking their hard work, you can use your college education and critical thinking ability to ***** a different perspective and learn something.

    4. Well, considering the victims in this case are the men who were falsely accused, does it really beggar belief that men should get a say?

  2. I wasn’t attacking your identity as a cis man. However I doubt that many people other than cis men would agree that the norm is that sexual assault survivors are automatically believed. That may be the case in our claremont bubble, but it’s not true outside of it. That was my quibble with having 2 guys write this article. If you’re operating under the assumption that currently sexual assault survivors are automatically believed we are not going to agree. If you don’t get why certain aspects of this article written by 2 guys are hilarious and bordering on satirical I’m not going to be able convince you that they are. If you can’t tell why people call the CI the conservative onion then that’s sad. Really if you read some of the CI’s articles as satire they are hilarious.

    1. It’s interesting that you find our article “hilarious,” as it seems you actually agree with us. You acknowledge that sexual assault survivors are automatically believed in our Claremont bubble–and that’s exactly the point Derek and I make. As you’ll notice, our argument refers specifically to the “bubble” that most colleges (such as the 5Cs and UVA) operate under, and why that’s a problem. As we saw at the University of North Dakota, Occidental College, and the University of Michigan (to name a few), colleges are constantly lowering the standards of evidence required to find an accused assailant guilty of sexual assault. In fact, the burden of proof is now on the accused to prove that they did not commit the crime (literally the definition of guilty until prove innocent). On top of that, colleges’ makeshift courts, to quote from our article, “are woefully ill-equipped” to handle this type of case (for more information on that, see a previous CI article: http://claremontindependent.com/title-ix-sexual-violence-the-preponderance-standard/#comment-551).

      We strongly support due process, and are critical of a system that ignores this principle, whether that’s a college denying the accused a fair trial or a journalist condemning a group of alleged assailants before verifying facts of the case. I think that’s a position that anybody of any gender can support.

    2. The whole point of the UVA debacle is that our society is too ready to believe AND levy punishment, or this whole thing never would have happened. The article breaks that down into the fact that you can believe someone without ruining someone else’s life sans evidence in the process.

      You’re looking at this case as a road block that goes against your narrative that needs to be somehow dismissed (because it was written by men, or because it’s rare, etc). Maybe, let someone else talk on the issue for once. Imagine if suddenly, the entire nation knew who you were and hated you and was calling you a rapist, just because someone lied and said so, and some unscrupulous reporter ran with it. That is an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

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