The XX Factor

Trolls Are Outing UVA’s “Jackie.” That’s Rolling Stone’s Fault Too.

The effort to “out” Jackie is a significant setback for the cause of encouraging women to report sexual assaults.

Photo by Yeko Photo Studio/Shutterstock

It’s probably inevitable that the name of the victim from Rolling Stone’s story about gang rape at the University of Virginia would come out. Once again, we have Rolling Stone to blame for that. In the story, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely called her subject by the name “Jackie,” which I think many reading the story assumed was a pseudonym (many of the other characters in the piece go by pseudonyms). After the story got a ton of positive attention for focusing light on a horrendous campus gang rape and a university’s apparently poor handling of it, Erdley then told a Washington Post reporter that the young woman’s real first name is Jackie. There are only so many undergraduates named Jackie at UVA, and the school’s directory is publicly accessible. From there, it’s a short distance to some vicious trolls, including the singularly vile Charles C. Johnson, threatening to doxx her.

If Johnson has his way, the next few days are likely a significant setback for the cause of encouraging women to report sexual assaults. Johnson tweeted Jackie’s full name on Sunday and wrote that he would give Jackie until midnight “to tell the truth” or else he will “start revealing everything about her past.” (It is unclear if Johnson actually knows anything “about her past” or is making idle, but dangerous, threats.) Others are already a few steps ahead of him, posting pictures from Jackie’s Facebook feed—and even her mother’s Facebook feed—and adding nasty captions.

Not that they will listen, but the trolls need a big reminder that what happened at UVA can still be filed in the category of mystery, not hoax. While the Washington Post has uncovered a lot of discrepancies in Jackie’s story, two friends told the Post reporter that on the night in question she told them that she’d been forced to have oral sex with several men. “The perception that I’m gravitating toward is that something happened that night and it’s gotten lost in different iterations of the stories that have been told,” one of the friends told the Post. “Is there a possibility nothing happened? Sure. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.”

One of Jackie’s suitemates from freshman year who has not yet spoken out wrote me an email saying, “I remember her letting it slip to me that she had had a terrible experience at a party. I remember her telling me that multiple men had assaulted her at this party.” She reiterated that Jackie went from “friendly” and “outgoing” to morose and inert, and was so depressed that she had to leave for home in December before finals. The suitemate did not get more specific, but she described an emotional arc very common to rape victims. Again, there are still major inconsistencies in Jackie’s story—chief among them the fact that the man her friends say orchestrated the assault told the Post he’d never met her. And it’s possible that Jackie had some sort of mental breakdown not driven by an assault. But we still don’t know what happened.

The larger question of whether victims of rape should remain anonymous is a complicated one. The initial rationale for anonymity was to afford victims a measure of protection and prevent them from feeling more shame and self-loathing than they already felt. But as Joan Didion explained in “Sentimental Journeys,” her essay about the Central Park jogger, this anonymity also had an element of the self-fulfilling, “guiding the victim to define her assault as her protectors do.” In other words, if rape were defined as more shame-inducing than other crimes, then the victims would continue to experience it as more shameful.

Anonymity is much harder to maintain these days, so whether we like it or not, we may be forced in the direction of identifying victims. Everyone who sat in on the 1990 trials knew the Central Park jogger’s name, yet no major papers published it (only black-owned papers did)—a discipline that’s hard to imagine now.* In a high-profile case, someone will always have something to gain by posting a name no one else will reveal.  

But these larger questions don’t really apply in this case. Jackie is not participating in a trial or even a university proceeding. Neither are the guys from the frat Rolling Stone named as the site of the alleged rape, whose names have been posted on various sites, and one of whom BuzzFeed outed with the cheap tactic of reporting that he’d retained a lawyer known for defending men on campus accused of rape. Thanks to Rolling Stone, the case is being adjudicated by reporters and bloggers and Internet trolls who range in type from the responsible to the opportunistic to the despicable. 

Correction, Dec. 8, 2014: This post originally misstated that no papers published the name of the Central Park jogger. Black-owned papers at the time published her name.