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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.

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.

Robby Soave, from Reason.com:

"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."

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.


via Flickr

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.

But by saying they had "misplaced trust" in Jackie because of "discrepancies," Rolling Stone made it harder for survivors to step forward.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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