UVA, Rolling Stone, and Rape Myths

You may or may not have heard about Rolling Stone‘s November 19 article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”

The story, written by freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdley, tells the account of one woman’s gang rape inside a University of Virginia fraternity. Erdley writes about the university’s lax responses to acts of sexual assault as well as the struggle by activists on campus to get justice for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

Reading through it for the first time shortly after it was published, I was stunned. I felt anger toward UVA and other universities for not doing their job to protect students from sexual assault. I felt shocked that Rolling Stone would publish something so daring. I felt empowered to read about a young woman’s struggle for justice, and hoped that many reading this would be likewise stirred to action. Finally,  I thought, things are changing and people will be held accountable for their actions. 

But of course, in the face of progress, there are bound to be those who seek to preserve the status quo.

Shortly after the report was published, UVA officials and lawyers as well as numerous news media outlets jumped on Rolling Stone and Erdley’s mistakes in the article. Due to pressure from potential lawsuits and outside media, Rolling Stone issued a statement apologizing to the readers for sharing an account that did not seem to be entirely accurate. They said that originally Erdley had chosen not to contact the men who “Jackie” accused of raping her, in order to preserve Jackie’s dignity. Unfortunately, although Jackie still maintains that she was sexually assaulted by multiple men, several details of her account have been shown to be inaccurate.

When I read Rolling Stone’s apology for trusting Jackie, my heart sank. Immediately I knew that the culture of rape that we cultivate in our society had won out again. Here was another victim depicted as a liar. Here was another giant, wealthy academic institution succeeding in protecting its image at any cost. Here came another wave of media declaring that once again, the victim was at fault.

As I have been reading through editorials, rebuttals, and ‘exclusive’ pieces about the Rolling Stone/UVA scandal, I have had a bitter taste in my mouth. To be blunt, I am pissed.

There is a disgusting, false, yet mystifyingly pervasive myth that most victims of sexual assault are lying about the assault. The reasoning behind this myth being that they are lying for attention or to make themselves feel better after engaging in a sexual act.

In Frances P. Reddington and Betsy Wright Kreisel’s anthology, Sexual Assault: The Victims, the Perpetrators, and the Criminal Justice System, Kreisel takes a look at this myth in Chapter 16: “Police and Victims of Sexual Assault.” She writes that according to various studies, false allegations of sexual assault are comparable to false allegations of other crimes. So why is it that the public (and, consequently, police officers and those involved in cases of sexual assault) tend to believe that claims of rape are more than likely made up? This is because of other rape myths: that women desire sex all the time, but pretend they don’t to preserve their modesty (ie playing hard to get); that she is just claiming rape out of guilt or a desire for vengeance; rape only happens to ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ women (“She deserved it!”), and so forth.

Based on studies cited in the anthology, the likelihood of a false rape claim is somewhere between 2-8%. Bear in mind that 1 in 3 women are likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 8% is looking pretty small. What’s more, these statistics don’t mean necessarily that the rape claim was false, but that police investigating decided that the rape claim was unfounded. Kreisel shares some of the reasons an investigating officer might make an unfounding decision:

  • The female was promiscuous or even a prostitute

  • The female was drinking or taking drugs or is a drug addict
  • The female’s story has inconsistencies
  • She exposed herself to risk of rape
  • She does not appear to be upset by the alleged rape.
  • She is unattractive
  • She knew the alleged rapist
  • The offense was not promptly reported
  • She is uncooperative
  • She has prior trouble with the police

(Reddington and Kreisel, 2009, p. 341)

The above were actual reasons given by law enforcement for why they chose not to follow through with an investigation.

It is not true that every rape claim is the truth. There will be women who lie and manipulate. However, with the media attention on the discrepancies in Jackie’s story, the focus is tragically ripped away from the real point of the article: the situation of sexual assault on college campuses.

UVA lawyers are concerned that Jackie may have gotten the date of her assault confused, or the location, or the perpetrator. But gang rape is a traumatic experience. During trauma, a person often shuts down completely and stays in survival mode. It is common for victims of any kind of trauma to not remember pieces of the event, or the entire event. Jackie’s story should not be discredited because she could not remember everything.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s say Jackie was lying, that she made the whole thing up for 15 minutes of fame (though why she would willingly subject herself to such scrutiny is beyond me). Even if her particular experience didn’t happen, many, many others did. Rape and sexual assault do occur at an alarming rate on college campuses. The culture of partying, drinking, and casual hook-ups creates the ideal situation for instances of sexual assault.

With all the media attention trying to prove or disprove Jackie’s individual experience, they are forgetting to look at the big picture. It is true that sexual assault happens frequently on college campuses, and it is true that college administrations are typically far more interested in their image and their donors to worry about rape victims. It is very likely that other elements of Erdley’s account– UVA’s failure to act, the other victims who were quoted, the campus atmosphere of sexual assault, and UVA’s covering up of assaults– were actually true and should be considered in this discussion.

As a student of journalism, I do not condone any falsifying on the part of Erdley. No matter deadline pressure, career pressure, or anything else, reporters should tell the truth first and foremost. Although it is not clear in this situation who was and was not telling the truth, Erdley definitely did not uphold journalistic ethical standards. However, all this drama about whether or not Jackie was telling the truth is only serving to feed into the myth that rape victims are liars. This myth is inexcusably harmful to victims. This myth often prevents victims from seeking help. This myth causes law enforcement to look the other way. This myth costs lives.

I am devastated that once again rape myths won the day. I can only hope that Jackie is vindicated and that more journalists try to dig deeper into university sexual assault cases. I would love to see truth and justice win out for once, wouldn’t you?

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One thought on “UVA, Rolling Stone, and Rape Myths

  1. I’d heard a little about the potential fabrication of parts of this story, but I haven’t followed it closely. I completely agree with you on how upsetting the implications of this are! As you said, there are already so many instances of rape victims being accused of lying and this only sets fuel to that fire. Also, some of the reasons that were listed for not believing the victim are horrifying! Thanks for shedding some light on how this story perpetuates such a problem. Good work!

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