They Let A Rape Survivor Tell Her Story. But Then They Took 2 Steps Backward.
When a mainstream magazine ends up doing more harm than good when it writes about rape victims, it's time to have some real talk.Update 12/9/14: Rolling Stone updated its editor's note, removing the phrase "and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."
On Nov. 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published a frightening story of a young woman's account of rape at the University of Virginia.
The story, titled "A Rape on Campus," was widely shared and praised on social media, even though many readers also noted how brutal the account was.
Almost every detail in @rollingstone's article about a gang-rape at UVA is horrifying http://t.co/Sh0iAqTiJC
— Catherine Rampell (@crampell) November 24, 2014
Late to this but @SabrinaRErdely's story of rape & lawlessness at UVA is a triumph of investigative storytelling http://t.co/r5nRlkltwH
— Eric Umansky (@ericuman) November 23, 2014
The article specifically highlighted the rape as occurring at one of the fraternities.
In light of the article, UVA's university president, Teresa Sullivan, sent an email to the student body, going so far as to say:
"Beginning immediately, I am suspending all fraternal organizations and associated social activities until January 9th, ahead of the beginning of our spring semester."
Many survivors of sexual assault at UVA were also inspired by the Rolling Stone story to come forward with their stories, and their responses were published on the website under the title, "Rape at UVA: Readers Say Jackie Wasn't Alone."
The young woman was named as "Jackie."
While the story focused largely on Jackie's account, it also examined the obstacles to reporting rape at UVA as well as the culture of sexism at the university. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, referred to some of the University's fight songs in the piece:
"A hundred Delta Gammas, a thousand AZDs
Ten thousand Pi Phi bitches who get down on their knees
But the ones that we hold true, the ones that we hold dear
Are the ones who stay up late at night, and take it in the rear."
But rather than discussing the epidemic of college campus sexual assaults, many media pundits began to call Jackie's individual account into question.
"If the frat brothers were absolute sociopaths to do this to Jackie, her friends were almost cartoonishly evil — casually dismissing her battered and bloodied state and urging her not to go to the hospital. ... I'll be following any and all developments in this case, and am eager to see this particular story either confirmed as true or exposed as a hoax."
Richard Bradley, in his blog Shots In The Dark, very closely examined the very fine details of Jackie's story (heads-up, some very graphic details; emphasis ours):
"So then we have a scene that boggles the mind ... .
A young woman is led into a 'pitch-black' room. She is shoved by a man, who falls on her; they crash through a glass table and she lands in shards of glass. She bites his hand; he punches her; the men laugh. (Really? A man punches a woman and people laugh?) With the smell of marijuana (not usually known as a violence-inducing drug) hovering over the room, he and six more men rape her ... .
* * *
'Grab its motherfucking leg," says the first rapist to one of his 'brothers.' It reminds me of Silence of the Lambs. 'It rubs the lotion on its skin…' But Silence of the Lambs was fiction."
Bradley says that to "believe it beyond a doubt ... requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases," ironically without noting that his pre-existing biases make it difficult for him to believe that Jackie could actually be dehumanized and treated the way she recounted.
On Dec. 5, 2014, the magazine decided to say they had lost trust in Jackie.
According to an editor's note by managing editor Will Dana, Rolling Stone found "discrepancies," without mentioning what those discrepancies are. Here's an excerpt:
"We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.
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."
And here are the consequences this will have on other survivors.
False accusations of sexual assault are very rare.
One of the studies on false rape accusations that used to be cited was by Professor Eugene Kanin, which determined that 41% of sexual assault reports made to a police agency were not true. But it turns out that only detectives made the call on whether or not it was "false," and the reports weren't thoroughly reviewed by anyone else.
According to several sources, including the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, Stanford, and the FBI, more recent, thorough studies put the statistics at 2% to 8% for unfounded reports of sexual assault — which is just about the same percentage of unfounded reports for other felonies. Special emphasis on *unfounded*, which is different from *false.*
Remember that these statistics only include sexual assaults that were reported to the police. And only 40% of sexual assaults are reported.
Way more likely than not, people who report they were sexually assaulted are telling the truth. To "misplace trust" implies that Jackie's story was not to be trusted, that her story is false, when there's no resolute evidence to back that up.
It is perfectly normal for victims to not perfectly remember every detail of their sexual assault.
Just because there are discrepancies in a person's story doesn't mean "falsehood."
My rapist denied it. Does that mean there are "discrepancies" in my story too? #UVA
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) December 5, 2014
And even if some details in a survivor's story are not correct, that doesn't mean she is lying, or that her story is false. Science explains that for us, as Slate reported last year:
"[S]exual assault victims often can't give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. 'That's simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,' says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant who trains civilian and military law enforcement to understand victim and offender behavior.
This is bigger than Jackie's story — this is about how society treats victims of sexual assault.
We don't know every single detail of Jackie's account. We weren't there. But the number of people who have jumped to call the story "false" simply because there were "discrepancies" shows that:
1. We are still not in a society that treats rape survivors' stories seriously.
2. The editor's note ended up being misconstrued as an admission that a survivor was lying (which Rolling Stone did not confirm had happened).
Rolling Stone initially did a brave, fantastic thing by letting Jackie tell her story.
People are so often concerned with "need to hear both sides" that they forget one side is incredibly manipulative and chose to pick apart the victim's story on purpose so her credibility will be doubted. The publication hadn't even named Jackie's rapist. They simply let Jackie tell her story as it was.