WASHINGTON, December 5, 2014 – Rolling Stone’s story about campus rape at the University of Virginia provoked a media sensation and strong response from UVA administrators. The university promised a vigorous investigation into the general issue of sexual assault on campus and into the particular brutal gang rape described in the Rolling Stone article, and suspended fraternity and sorority activities until spring semester.
Rolling Stone today apologized for the story, “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, wrote in an editorial,
“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. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”
The story acted like a Rorschach test from the beginning. Skeptics, initially conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, expressed doubts about the story, and were immediately blasted by feminist critics as “idiots.” By Thursday, though, hard questions were being asked by liberal writers and even some feminists.
The story, as Goldberg observed, was incredible; that is, it was hardly credible. That Rolling Stone chose to run it without doing some basic fact checking, deliberately choosing not to contact any of the men who allegedly took part in the rape, was astonishing.
That is, it should have been astonishing, but it wasn’t. Erdely had deliberately chosen UVA as the place to research a story on sexual assault because the campus fit a narrative: southern, white, with a long tradition that made a story about fraternity rape seem entirely plausible. And because the idea of privileged white frat-boys raping a young woman was so entirely plausible, and further, because the magazine’s editors were so anxious not to further stress “Jackie,” the young woman who was allegedly raped, some standard fact checking was predictably ignored.
What the editors failed to realize is that this put a number of people at risk, not the least of them Jackie herself. Jackie has been described as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If her story is at all true – at this point a very big if – that is unsurprising. And it would also be unsurprising that her memory of the details, some of them very large details, would be vague or inaccurate.
Victims of horrific crimes often confuse details that most of us consider vital. In Bosnia after the war, I talked to people who were victims of brutal crimes who could not remember correctly the dates, locations, or even perpetrators of events that became a matter of historical record.
Because those of us who have not been so victimized don’t understand how people can get such basic facts wrong, we are likely to discount reports that get them wrong. It is therefor the responsibility of people who gather those reports to do some serious fact checking, both to make sure that the lives of innocent people aren’t disrupted or destroyed by untrue charges, and to ensure that real victims aren’t simply dismissed as liars.
The Rolling Stone story put members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at risk from angry individuals (their fraternity house was reportedly vandalized), it potentially damaged their reputations, and it could have put them in serious legal trouble. To do that without checking facts was irresponsible.
But worse, if it turns out that Jackie really was a victim of rape, she will almost certainly be dismissed as a liar, and she will, if her true identity is discovered, be a target of angry backlash. Rolling Stone should never have put her in that position.
Jackie reportedly asked Rolling Stone not to run her story. If they ignored her request, that makes their failure so much the worse. Rolling Stone’s blockbuster story has become a blockbuster disaster.
Along these lines, another rape story has made the news, though the rape itself, if it occurred, is old news.
Lena Dunham recounts in her recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, an unpleasant sexual encounter, an “ill-fated evening of lovemaking with our campus’s resident conservative.” She later calls him by name, “Barry,” describing him as “a mustachioed campus Republican” who was “the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex when, in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all.”
She later says of the experience, “But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us. I never gave him permission.” When the episode is described by Howard Stern in an interview as rape, Dunham answers, “yes.”
Like the Rolling Stone story, Dunham’s story is full of holes. She gets the details wrong, and in the process puts a real Barry who attended Oberlin when she did at risk of being labeled a rapist when, his name and political affiliation aside, he matches none of Dunham’s descriptors of her sex partner.
Dunham’s story is much less traumatic than Jackie’s, and the odds are much less that she’s the PTSD-suffering survivor of a rape who just can’t remember the details. And like Erdely, Dunham does a huge disservice to women who are sexually assaulted.
Sexual assaults really do occur on university campuses, though almost certainly not with the absurd frequency reported by Vice President Biden, who says that one in five women is assaulted while in college. Rapes are committed by fraternity members, athletes, and members of the marching band; students male and female are brutalized. And it’s harder to get anyone to take those students seriously when high-profile examples of assault turn out to be fabrications.
American universities are struggling unsuccessfully to balance the dictates of the government’s Title IX sexual violence dictates with some modicum of fairness to students accused of sexual violence. Male students accused of sexual assault have successfully sued schools that have denied them any semblance of due process before expelling them or putting them on probation. We are creating an atmosphere of extremism that throws fairness out the window, increases the odds that consensual sexual behavior will be treated as criminal by the university, and increases the odds that false accusations will destroy lives.
The Duke University lacrosse team rape scandal illustrates the campus politics of sex. The players who were accused of rape were condemned by university faculty – the infamous Gang of 88 – in an ad for which members of the gang never apologized. In fact, they later doubled-down and stood proudly by their original ad. Students marched and called for violence against the lacrosse players; one banner famously called for their castration.
After the dust and the university settled (the latter for a reported $20 million), the defiant Gang of 88 made clear that they believed the issues were bigger than the mere guilt or innocence of the lacrosse players. That same refrain is surfacing with regard to the Rolling Stone story: We must stay focused on the big picture of campus sexual violence, and not be distracted by stories that turn out to be true. They are, after all, metaphorically true.
And that’s a lie. The actual guilt and innocence of real students matters. That campus administrators take sexual assault seriously matters. Erdely, Dunham, the Gang of 88, and administrators all over the country are turning real tragedies into political theater and a joke. Their concerns are not with victims, with women, or with college students. Their concerns are with position and self-aggrandizement.
They are as bad as rapists.