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.
Image Source: Flickr/Holger