How Rolling Stone Should Have Dealt With the Fallout From Its UVA Story

Jackie’s “inconsistencies” are hardly as egregious as the sexual assault animating much of Greek life on college campuses today.

A UVA student protesting Phi Kappa Psi. Photo by Flickr user Bob Mical.

After reading the account of a young woman’s brutal and vicious gang rape, I didn’t think I could feel more disgusted or horrified. I was wrong. Rolling Stone retracted its UVA story in the most vile manner by pandering to the motif of the despicable woman crying rape in order to… what exactly would anonymized Jackie get out of making up this story? In any event, I was wrong. I did feel more disgusted and horrified as I witnessed the barrage of responses crucifying this young girl’s character and then eventually putting her in physical danger by publishing her address and literally running her out of her home. Is it any wonder that women don’t report their rapes when it is their integrity and character that are put on the line rather than their rapist’s?

The events surrounding the retraction demonstrate society’s ongoing struggle with the complex realities of rape and an unfortunate willingness to default to the comfortable, yet ungrounded, belief in false rape. It is so much easier to call a woman a liar than to be forced to challenge and change the systemic nature of rape, to face our own individual and institutional complicity in violence against women.

To be clear, Jackie’s “inconsistencies” consist of getting the date of the party wrong and misidentifying one of the men who raped her as a member of another frat. Additionally, Jackie claimed that she had seen a few friends after the assault and told them what had happened. The friends now say that she only told them that a group of men had forced her to have oral sex and did not specify which frat. Their recollection is privileged as a more trustworthy version of events next to Jackie’s. The inconsistency between the two accounts has been interpreted as evidence that Jackie was lying about the rape, rather than as evidence that Jackie was shocked or confused following her brutal attack, or as evidence that her friends are lying or confused. Put aside the fact that shame is often the most potent emotion a rape victim experiences. Put aside the fact that victims, if they do tell anyone, will often attempt to minimize the ordeal or actually block it out.

Despite the well-documented science that explains why rape victims often can’t recall the events in a linear timeline or will sometimes create memories to fill gaps, it is simply easier to call her a liar. It is easier to particularize the issues to this school and this girl and these men, and to distract ourselves from the larger problem (a rape problem of epidemic proportions) as well as our own complicity in rape culture. It is easier to put Jackie on trial. It is easier to discount Jackie’s word while the testimony of her colleagues, for better or for worse, is used to decipher the veracity of her story.

Those who know the statistics know that Jackie’s story is not unique. Frat brothers are 300 percent more likely to rape. Women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women. One in five women will be sexually assaulted while studying at college. Men are eleven times more likely to be killed by an asteroid than to be falsely accused of rape. And we know the anecdotal stories: We know that sexual assault is very much a part of “rush culture” and Greek life. I remember a member of the Greek system at my own alma mater telling me about a secret room in the house containing a hidden video camera where members were urged to take intoxicated girls during parties. There were innumerable stories like this. The audacity of the Greek system at UVA to demand an apology from the university for finally taking action against campus rape and suspending the entire Greek system is despicable. This is not about one woman’s story; it’s about an epidemic of rape within the Greek system.

Clearly, Rolling Stone did not take seriously the lesson of its own story when it chose to erase and delegitimize Jackie’s experience after she had gathered the extraordinary courage to tell it. In light of this, I’d like to recommend a third draft of a statement for Rolling Stone's consideration that is more consistent with the science of trauma and human dignity:

"Jackie forgot the precise date she was gang-raped by seven men over the course of three hours. One of the men who raped Jackie was not a member of the said fraternity. There is a mountain of evidence on the way rape victims respond to extreme trauma, including the effect on recall of the events in a linear manner. Rape victims should not be put on trial for their own rape, particularly where evidence of true inconsistency is so lacking."

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