A couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone ran a horrific story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia. They claimed that “Jackie” was lured to an upstairs room in a frat and brutally gang-raped by seven men. They further claimed that Jackie’s friends persuaded her not to tell anyone and she maintained her silence until she found out about other women who had been gang-raped at the fraternity. She then went to the Administration, who tepidly listened to the claim and told her to do whatever she was comfortable with rather than taking action.
Over the next few weeks, several people raised questions about the story, pointing out that it had some issues. When they found out that the reporter had not spoken to the alleged rapists, they pressed Rolling Stone further. For this, they were branded as idiots, rape apologists and rape truthers. Because, apparently, the Duke Lacrosse thing never happened.
This weekend, the roof caved in:
In the face of new information reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account. The fraternity has issued a formal statement denying the assault and asserting that there was no “date function or formal event” on the night in question. Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story as “Drew,” was a Phi Psi brother. According to the Washington Post, “Drew” actually belongs to a different fraternity and when contacted by the paper, he denied knowing Jackie. Jackie told Rolling Stone that after she was assaulted, she ran into “Drew” at a UVA pool where they both worked as lifeguards. In its statement, Phi Psi says none of its members worked at the pool in the fall of 2012. A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school’s fraternities. She did not appear to be “physically injured at the time” but was shaken. She told him that that she had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men at a fraternity party, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. Other friends of Jackie’s told the Washington Post that they now have doubts about her narrative, but Jackie told the Washington Post that she firmly stands by the account she gave to Erdely.
The entire debacle is alarming. Rolling Stone never contacted the frat or the accused ringleader, despite having his name. They apparently didn’t talk to Jackie’s friends, who they accused of telling her not to go the hospital for fear of being barred from the frat scene. They did not note that her story had changed. Most disturbing of all: Jackie herself apparently asked Rolling Stone to not use her in their story and they refused, which one rape victim believes was like violating her all over again.
(I’ll take a moment here to note my tenuous connection to the story: I went to UVa for graduate school. That may have informed my initial response to the story. I know how strong Greek culture is at UVa and how big a role alcohol plays in the social life. My girlfriend at the time lived near the frats and would be catcalled if she walked by them unescorted. But the story nagged me. It sounded a little too horrifying.)
The following should go without saying but apparently it doesn’t: even if Jackie’s story were complete bullshit, this does not mean that sexual violence isn’t a problem in the country, on college campuses or at UVa in particular. But to some liberals, this needs to be said because, apparently, if you question the story — any story — you’re denying that rape exists.
Moreover it’s possible that Jackie’s story is partially correct or even mostly true. Three of Jackie’s friends have now gone on record as saying that something bad did happen, apparently a group of men forcing her to perform oral sex. If that or anything close to that is true, it’s still horrifying. And if the Administration provided her with as little guidance as alleged, that’s damning.
So this is not about “rape denial”. Nor is it about a “hoax” perpetrated by a young woman who may have a distorted memory of that night or may have her own psychological issues. This is about the complete and utter failure of journalism and an indictment of the debate we are having over sexual violence.
It’s one thing to write about the problem of campus rape and unsympathetic authorities. It’s not like there’s a dearth of real documented cases of women making substantive allegations only to see them dismissed. But in this case, a specific allegation was made about a specific frat and specific men within. Maybe they did do it. But if you’re going to name names like that, you have to do due diligence. You can’t just take one girl’s claims and run with it because it’s so sensational (especially when she has begged you not to). You have to talk to the other principles, you have to give them a chance to respond, you have to do some basic fact-checking.
And this may not be the first time this exaggeration has happened. People are now poring through Sabrina Erdely’s writings and finding other cases, involving sexual abuse in the priesthood and in the military, where her facts are wrong or extremely unlikely. In all three cases, no one doubts that sexual abuse and cover-up existed in these institutions. But in all three cases, that wasn’t enough for Erdely. She had to go with a more sensational story. Because apparently, an 18-year-old freshman being forced to perform oral sex wasn’t sensational enough.
This is the problem with the attempts to make rape and sexual violence an important issue. The people who trumpet bullshit statistics or demand that believe every accuser by default are actually doing a disservice to rape victims. They are destroying the credibility of all victims, destroying the credibility of all advocates. In politics, you only have so much ammunition to use in advancing your goal. You can’t waste it shooting at shadows. Investigating Jackie’s claims might have done her some harm. But nowhere near the harm that not investigating them has done. Because now her credibility is completely shot even though at least three people can testify that she claimed to have been assaulted on the night in question. And that’s to say nothing of the frat and the accused. If they are innocent, they have been badly harmed by these allegations. And for all of the principles here — Jackie, the boy who supposedly initiated the rape and several of the alleged participants — they’re real names have come leaking out from Rolling Stone.
One cost of minimizing false negatives is to the false positives who get hurt. But another cost is to the credibility of all rape reports. People who responded to the problems with the Rolling Stone story by saying that this didn’t have anything to do with the real problem — the culture of rape on college campuses — were missing something important. Actually, two important things. First, that deciding what to do in the face of these trade-offs between false positives and false negatives is actually a vital matter of public debate in all areas of policy, and this story cast important light on how those trade-offs may have been made outside of the public eye. And second, that by declaring that this story, which just a week before was a grave matter demanding the urgent attention of the nation, somehow became trivial and irrelevant when it started to look as if it might be false, writers and activists were suggesting that they simply didn’t care about false positives. Which undercuts the very public trust they need to advance their cause.
McArdle references Emily Yoffe’s excellent article at Slate, which you should read. It makes the case that a young man at Michigan was railroaded by a single Administrator with an agenda. McArdle also touches upon an important point which is that people wanted to believe the Rolling Stone story. As horrible as it was, it played to many of our biases: that victims always tell the truth, that frat boys are evil, that there is an epidemic of rape in this country.
For me, the ultimate take from this is to only firm up my conviction that rape and sexual assaults should be handled by the police. Jackie should have gone to the police on the night she was allegedly attacked. She should have been told, from the moment she set foot on campus, that sexual violence is a crime and a crime is something you go to the police for. Her friends should have been told to encourage victims to go the police. The Administration, upon hearing her, should not have adopted a “neutral” position but told her to go to the police. Easterbrook:
Going to police would be traumatic for those who allege sexual assault, but talking to police is traumatic for all victims of violent crimes, including for all male victims. Some law enforcement departments now have specialists in personal trauma, trained to soften the nature of the complainant interview. If local police near a college knew they’d be the ones to handle sex-assault claims, departments that do not now have specialists likely soon would.
The core aspect of campus sexual assault is that male students think they will get away with it. If the new campus standard was that police would be involved from the get-go, male students would face real consequences, and it’s possible their behavior would change. That would make women safer and also improve the situation for male students who respect women.
Yes, sometimes police can be dismissive or ask uncomfortable questions about what a woman was wearing or how much she had been drinking. Their conviction record in cases of campus rape is poor. It is difficult to bring out the truth in he-said she-said situations. The solution to that is to change the way police handle allegations of sexual violence, not to hand the process over to poli-sci professors with delusions of grandeur. As Joseph Cohn points out, the conviction rate when you don’t go the police is zero.
If something really did happen to Jackie — and I think it’s likely it did — and she had gone to the police that night, it’s possible that her attackers would be in jail. And that is a far better outcome than some frat boys being kicked off campus. Or some reporter with an agenda making stuff up so she can get some clicks.