I’m told that this has been a bad couple of weeks for the anti-rape movement. “Rolling Stone just wrecked an incredible year of progress for rape victims,” Arielle Duhaime-Ross wrote at the Verge last week. Since the magazine’s November story about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity began to unravel early this month, feminists have raised alarms that the magazine’s whiff will have devastating effects for past and future victims. The story “could be read as a setback for an entire movement,” campus activist Annie Clark wrote in BuzzFeed. UVA is “on its way to becoming the next Duke Lacrosse—a highly publicized incident that misogynists will point to as a way to discredit all people, especially young women and students, who experience rape,” Audrey White wrote at Autostraddle. According to Duhaime-Ross, “the credibility of rape victims will be put into question for years to come,” as Rolling Stone has helped to “perpetuate the dangerous and damaging myth that women lie about rape.”
I’m surprised that these activists and commentators are so quick to hand over the future of this movement to packs of roving social media misogynists. There are people on the fringe who believe that any rape story with any discrepancies is evidence of a vast feminist conspiracy aimed at inventing rapes and vilifying innocent men, but these rape truthers are not reasonable people, nor are they most people, and it is unwise to mold the conversation around their fantasies. I am, however, concerned with how some feminists and progressives have responded to the ever-expanding holes in Rolling Stone’s story.
At this point, it is clear that Rolling Stone failed to meet its basic journalistic requirements many times over. There is also compelling evidence that Jackie herself fabricated all or parts of her story. Neither of these scenarios serves to dismantle the anti-rape movement. Journalists have messed up reporting on rape since they began reporting on rape. In addition, there have been false rape allegations in the past, and there will be false allegations in the future. Any successful anti-rape activist or movement must be willing to accept that false accusations are not a “myth” and grapple with how to handle them appropriately. Whatever really happened at UVA one Saturday night in 2012 cannot possibly undermine a social justice movement because any understanding of justice must accommodate the truth.
Rolling Stone presented Jackie’s story as a powerful symbol for how rape victims are denied justice across America. When it was revealed that the magazine had torpedoed itself, Jackie, and UVA in its negligent reporting, it gave anti-rape activists the opportunity to disavow the false framework that Jackie is somehow emblematic of victims everywhere. Instead, many doubled down. Under the hashtags #IStandWithJackie and #IBelieveJackie, feminists lent their support for Jackie’s story, noting that certain aspects of her experience resonate with the way that other rape victims have been shamed and disbelieved. “We know institutions will bring their power to bear to obfuscate sexual violence. That’s why we stand with survivors. #IBelieveJackie,” the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence tweeted. By using Jackie’s individual story, which was already coming under legitimate scrutiny, to reinforce the movement’s broader narrative about how sexual assault operates, and boosting the message with activist hashtags, they bet the big story on the strength of one anecdote. That’s a mistake.
On Monday, after a weekend of the Washington Post reporting on a number of inconsistencies in the story, the NAESV released a full statement, saying that it “believes ‘Jackie’ ” because the NAESV is made up of “very experienced survivor advocates” who “do not take minor discrepancies in certain details of ‘Jackie’s’ story as any reason to begin doubting that she experienced horrific sexual violence by a number of perpetrators. The research on traumatic memories is clear: those who survive trauma can often have difficulty consolidating the details of the experience and discrepancies are not uncommon.” There is never a wrong time to highlight the effects of traumatic crimes on their victims or how PTSD affects testimony, but it is misleading to suggest that Jackie’s experience is somehow normative of sexual assault victims in general. The NAESV’s own advocates have presumably never counseled Jackie directly. They do not know what happened to Jackie and do not understand all the various possible explanations for her behavior. Right now, none of us do.
Rolling Stone’s editors have pledged to reinvestigate the tale themselves, and after the magazine’s disastrous first round, I suspect that their project will be about as useful as O.J. Simpson’s search for the real killers. But it is likely that more reporting on this story from other sources, as well as an investigation currently being undertaken by the Charlottesville, Virginia, police, will further illuminate what happened at UVA and how Rolling Stone got it so wrong. So it is confusing to me that since the story broke, activists on both sides have attempted to fill in the blanks with rank speculation about what “really” happened, coming to conclusions that conveniently align with their worldviews. “I think it’s pretty clear Jackie was assaulted, and that her memory of the trauma is inaccurate—which is far from uncommon,” feminist blogger Jeff Fecke tweeted after the Washington Post’s most recent story was published Wednesday night.
I’m not sure what would make Fecke so clear on that point, given the reporting that has come out. And there are many feminists who claim that the situation ought never be clarified because attempts to “pick apart” Jackie’s story are necessarily offensive to Jackie and by extension all rape victims. “The current frenzy to prove Jackie’s story false—whether because the horror of a violent gang rape is too much to face or because disbelief is the misogynist status quo—will do incredible damage to all rape victims, but it is this one young woman who will suffer most,” Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian on Monday. It is wrong to assume that seeking the truth—to the extent that it is discoverable—comes from a place of mistrust or outright derision of rape victims. Carefully examining the Rolling Stone debacle and taking rape seriously as a national problem are not incompatible goals; we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
And there are real reasons for reinvestigating the story. The students of UVA deserve to know whether their campus is being occupied by a pack of ritualistic gang rapists, and if so, who they are. It is also appropriate to re-examine whether UVA’s response in this case was, in fact, insufficient, as Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story strongly argued. As for the other students who appeared in Erdely’s story, especially the three friends Jackie says she called on the night of the alleged incident, it is fair to provide them the opportunity to share their own recollections of the events. Erdely characterized “Cindy” as a “self-declared hookup queen” and attributed this direct quote to her: “Why didn’t you have fun with it? … A bunch of hot Phi Psi guys?” It is not petty or mean for her to dispute this narrative. None of this means that Jackie ought to be hounded or harassed in the process. Declining to speak further to reporters is her right, and cruel, unsourced speculation about her personality or motives or history of victimization is unfair.
And yet there is something strange in the claim, from advocates at the NAESV, Valenti, and Autostraddle’s Audrey White, that they “believe” Jackie. I don’t challenge their right to believe in anything they choose, but I do question whether belief is a productive framework for this story, because it suggests faith in something that lies outside the bounds of human knowledge. To put claims of rape in this category is to buy the idea that rape reports are by nature ambiguous, and that feelings override facts. The Rolling Stone incident shows that is not the case—many aspects of many rape allegations are capable of being thoroughly investigated, and one of the greatest problems with the American justice system’s response to rape is that police so often refuse to do that work (or in this case, that a journalist declined to). The idea that fully investigating or truthfully reporting on rape claims boils down to a simple “belief” in a victim’s account is simplistic and offensive, as Rolling Stone itself realized after it claimed that its trust in Jackie was “misplaced,” and it was swiftly and rightfully shamed for saying so.
Even journalists who aren’t staking out a position on Jackie’s story have turned to questionable tactics in order to shift the focus. Many have attempted to contextualize the fallout of the Rolling Stone article by pointing to statistics that show that false rape reports are an extremely rare phenomenon. In a representative piece, the Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein wrote: “Rape-prevention groups on campus and elsewhere have already expressed concerns that even the suggestion of a false allegation could perpetuate misconceptions about the crime and hurt efforts to persuade women to come forward when they have been assaulted. In fact, research on rape allegations suggests that only a small percentage of the rape claims presented to the authorities—not only in the United States but also abroad—are false.” Goldstein relied heavily on a 2010 study published by the psychologist David Lisak and a team of researchers that found that just 6 percent of rape claims reported to one American university’s campus police department were investigated by authorities and determined to be false; the team’s review of similar international research on the subject found that between 2 percent and 10 percent of rape claims in those studies were determined to be false. But these studies refer to claims made to campus and local police departments; Jackie did not bring her story to them. I am not aware of any research investigating the veracity of rape claims told among friends, at campus consciousness-raising groups, or to the media. Perhaps these stories are more likely or less likely to be true. Why pretend that we know?
A common refrain in this fallout is that by even asking questions like these, we risk suppressing victims’ stories or making abused women feel distrusted and alone. “I worry about how many people won’t come forward about past or future attacks because they’ve been told once again that assault victims shouldn’t be trusted,” Audrey White wrote at Autostraddle as the story began to self-destruct. But that’s not true. The lesson of the Rolling Stone story is not that victims shouldn’t be trusted, but that unreliable storytelling shouldn’t be trusted; at the Post, Erik Wemple has rightfully used the incident to question Rolling Stone’s deployment of vivid, cinematic narratives in its treatment of other subjects. And many journalists are using the Rolling Stone example as an opportunity to re-examine their own responsibilities as reporters on all kinds of stories, not as evidence to distrust rape victims. Officials at UVA have also reaffirmed their commitment to taking sexual assault reports on the campus seriously, even as Jackie’s story has come undone. This makes sense, as UVA’s responsibility to its students in this regard is not predicated on coverage in Rolling Stone but is mandated by the federal government, which is keeping a watchful eye on the administration and has for years.
Perhaps the sort of self-examination that journalists and UVA administrators are going through now could also serve activists and feminists. Big ideological narratives about sexism and rape culture don’t need to fit neatly with every incident in order to remain compelling. In fact, they are strengthened when they are accepting of nuances and aware of their own limitations.