Rolling Stone’s Bad Journalism Shouldn’t Stop Anti-Rape Movement

Reading Rolling Stone’s article about the gang rape at the University of Virginia made bile rise in your throat, tears sting your eyes, and an emptiness grow inside you that anyone could be brutalized and dehumanized to such an extent. Maybe you had to walk away a few times, unable to stomach reading it at one sitting. Perhaps your first thought was for all the women you know in college and felt yourself filled with fear that it could be them. It’s even possible it brought back long buried but never forgotten memories of your own of close calls or nights you wish you’d been anywhere else.

Jackie’s story made you feel. Its sensationalist portrayal of a vicious gang rape transported you into a darkened hazy room the likes of which you see on “American Horror Story,” not at the “Ivy League of the South.” It filled you with rage that this could be happening on our campuses, where instead of being a bastion of learning, social status and the predatory sexual dominance of frat boys are given priority. You were enraged that a school would actively hide cases of sexual “misconduct” from its records because “No one wants to go to a rape school,” and when you read that her friends actively discouraged her from seeking help because it would hurt their social status you despaired for humanity.

The story spread across airwaves, social media, and campuses. UVa’s reputation was unalterably and rightfully sullied as students tagged the building of the frat in question, rallied for change, and demanded their school right the wrongs decades in the making. The ongoing investigation of 55 colleges for mishandling sexual assault under Title IX was finally being taken seriously by the nation. Parents, students, and faculty alike were saying “No more.”

Through its horror, Jackie’s story was an impetus, a fire lit in the hearts and minds that the time had come to stop letting rapists get away, to stop letting fear and peer pressure let barbaric acts be acceptable behavior in our society, and to shift the impetus of responsibility for stoping rape off the victims and on to the rapists. Finally, we thought, maybe things will change.

And now it has come to light that maybe Jackie’s story wasn’t entirely true. That this graphic depiction was a combination of Rolling Stone’s biased and shoddy journalism predetermining the story without all the facts, and a girl who never wanted to share her tale, who suffers from PTSD, and may not be able to ever remember accurately what happened. This girl who hid her identity and that of her rapists, who never wanted to press charges, and asked to be taken out of the story is now having her account picked apart and derailed. Her friends and activists are doubting her, Rolling Stone is revoking their support, and all the details that viscerally grabbed the nation by its guts are being doubted. It’s the Duke case all over again, a woman cried rape, Rolling Stone jumped on the bandwagon, and in the end that case was also unraveled. It’s the same story, again and again, that discredits rape victims every day.

So how are we meant to feel now? Angry? Duped? Disillusioned that yet again, right as the eyes of the world were taking seriously the very real facet of rape and sexual assault on our college campuses, that with one story’s unraveling so too goes all that progress?

So I say to you, so what? So what if this instance was more fictional than fact and didn’t actually happen to Jackie? Do we actually want anyone to have gone through this? This story was a shock and awe campaign that forced even the most ardent of rape culture deniers to stand up in horror and demand action.

We imagined ourselves, our sisters, daughters, and friends in the same situation. The countless women on that campus that have been raped, assaulted, harassed, and abused in frat parties and treated like they were nothing but an object to be used empathized with the story. Women across UVa and campuses across the nation were given courage to tell their stories of rape and of times they’d gone to their own school officials and been discouraged to report it.  The proof is everywhere that the culture of sexaul assault described is a systemic problem, and not limited to this one brutality. That’s why women and men alike took to the streets, to the papers, and the Internet; they rallied and said enough is enough and we will not stand for this anymore.  

And that is because in that story we were all Jackie. There are thousands of other Jackies whose stories are just as horrific and damning and what did it hurt? Yes Greek life was temporarily shut down for a few weeks at a school and investigations were created, but no names were released, no lives were ruined. Instead a school that knew this was a systemic problem took action and with the eyes of the world upon it took responsibility and committed to stopping this from happening. The rape culture we try so hard to deny was brought out from its diseased shadows and shocked people with its true face. Schools across the nation are scared because they knew it could have just as easily been their names in the news and the fear of that backlash can beget the change we so desperately need.

Don’t let the holes in this story diminish your rage, do not let the fire burning across our schools and nation be smothered by shoddy journalism and a troubled and traumatized girl who has clearly suffered. Don’t let Rolling Stone pass the onus of fact finding onto victims for their own failure to investigate. Don’t let this systemic disease fester and grow because of doubt and disdain.

Fan the flames, stand strong, and remember when you were Jackie. Remember how that felt.

And don’t ever let it happen again.

View Comments (36)
    • We’ve been talking about this topic pretty non-stop amongst the writers and I’d expressed a lot of fears that this would happen just because of Rolling Stone’s reputation. But the fact remains it almost doesn’t matter if this is entirely factual, it lit a fire and we have to keep it burning. Thank you for sharing and please keep it going!

      • It doesn’t matter if this were true or not? No one was harmed by RS reporters false story? So if I understand you correctly when the male students of UVA graduate next year they will not be viewed by the human resource (a field dominated by women) managers as having graduated from a university “UVa’s reputation was unalterably and rightfully sullied …..” with a “rape culture”? There will be no bias in hiring, salary offers; training, development and promotion opportunities? What makes you think that, since “we are all Jackie”? When these presumable qualified and now, according to you, reputation unharmed men are working side by side with women who have also recently graduated from college they will be treated as if nothing ever happened? Treated as if there is no “rape culture” on campus – especially at the now “deservedly” tarnished UVA? Why might that be?

        “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
        They do not teach the bible in public school any longer, but they sure make you swear to tell the truth before a grand jury in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I am certain that University President Sullivan is looking for to, or at least lawyering up for, that event. She can enjoy explaining why nothing was referred to the UVA or Charlottesville PD for a year and a half. Next up the Provost, the head of the UVA PD, the members of Phi Kappa Psi, and the three friends of “Jackie”named in the Rolling Stone article. I’m sure they all look forward to that event. Of course Ms. Sabrina Rubin Erderly will be called too; where she will no doubt fall back on that great creation of the privileged white male Christians who founded the Republic – the first amendments to the constitution.

      • Of course it lit a fire; it was intended to. The author of the Rolling Stone piece passed over several other rape stories, some with actual convictions, in her “rape-shopping” for the biggest clickbait story she could find. But the author did us all a favor. In the aftermath, she has exposed the “rape culture” community as a modern day lynch mob. Yours is just another in a long line of screeds telling anyone dumb enough to listen that whether the story was true or not doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters. How can UVa be accused to under-reacting to a false story? If anything, they overreacted, dealing out collective punishment to the innocent to appease the lynch mob.

        Wanting to get to the truth doesn’t make one a “rape apologist” and adhering to the Constitution where criminal accusations need to be corroborated by evidence is not “rape culture”.

    • I agree with your POV on this, there could be several reasons why the facts as outlined in the original RS article were not exact but I don’t think the victim would have made everything up. The number of female students who report being sexually assaulted at UVA (& other universites) is still alarming, yes, the details may not be as horrific as those portrayed but any assault is horrific to the victim and there should be zero-tolerance. What horrified me as much as the details of the alleged rape, was the idea that UVA’s attitude in general was to steer victims away from involving the police.

      To all those who are more than willing to disregard this issue because of sub-standard journalism I would say it doesn’t make the facts that we can prove any less true –

      1) In 1997, the Department of Justice surveyed 4,446 college women and found that 15.5 percent said they had been ‘sexually victimized’ during that school year — including threats & behaviour ranging from unwanted touching to rape. The study said that during the course of an undergraduate career, which often extends five years, “the percentage of completed or attempted rape among women in higher educational institutions might climb to between one-fifth and one-quarter.”

      2) UVa is one of the 12 universities that has been singled out for an proactive federal compliance review of its procedures handling students’ complaints of sexual assaults.

      3) The number of students who have been expelled by UVA in the last 10 years (or more?) for an assault on a female student – zero

  • With all due respect “who cares?” and “it almost doesn’t matter if this is entirely factual.” are ridiculous things to say. Why? Because the truth matters. If we are going to shed light on the problem of rape, then we must do it on a strong foundation of truth and reality not lies and fantasy. Doing anything else gives the skeptics ammunition. The Duke lacrosse scandal is finally old news and with the UVA story we begin again.

    It sounds to me like your are advocating, or at least forgiving, lying in pursuit of a greater good – the ends justify the means. If that is your position I would ask you to reconsider because, at the very least, failure to do so would mean your readers would have to suspect that all your writing may contain stuff that is not true.


  • As a mom of daughters, I constantly tell them to be careful, know where your are, who you are with. Guard yourself. Be careful, be vigilant. I would say the same thing to my sons. I hate that it is more important to say it to my daughters. As women, we must raise our children to see injustice and stand against the people who advocate that any thing goes. Rape. Almost rape. Yes, women need to be responsible for and to themselves and each other, but shouldn’t fear normal social situations. I am the mom of a college senior, I couldn’t find any info on sexual assault about any of the universities my daughter considered attending. This needs to change. No more “no one wants to send their daughter to a rape school!”

  • What did it hurt? It hurt a lot of people and made people even more cynical about rape stories. Lying about rape is extremely damaging. You stating “so what” is pretty heartless and a dangerous way to think. One should never rally around a lie.

    Shame on you.

  • While I agree with your main point that the issue of sexual violence still needs and deserves major attention, if this woman was lying she’s done a great disservice to real victims and makes it more difficult for the next woman to come forward with their (true) stories.

    Secondly, to say there were no victims of her lie because no names came out is also misleading. She claimed that her rape was a part of an initiation process. This is a claim of ritualistic and institutionalized sexual assault. The logic then follows that if you’re a member of that fraternity then you’ve also engaged in sexual crimes against women. That’s why the frats were shut down. All I need is fraternity roster list for those names.

    Frankly if I were the fraternity head I’d be preparing to sue RS, UVA, and would consider suing certain advocacy groups that fanned the flames of rage which may have led to the vandalizing of their house (probably wouldn’t win that last one but still).

    So while I’m glad to see such focus and energy going towards correcting a serious issue in our society doing it under false pretenses isn’t okay.

    Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and may have needed to go, but there were no WMD, that matters. The truth always matters, and the end – no matter how good – does not always justify the means.

  • terrible, terrible piece. No regard for the real victims, the men of the villified frat- subjected to horrendous treatment by students, faculty, Rolling Stone and AUTHOR, reputations shot, say one word on their behalf, please

  • ” UVa’s reputation was unalterably and rightfully sullied […]”

    How is this statement remotely defensible, given that the accusation lodged against them is rapidly being show to be bogus? It is “rightful” to smear innocent parties with lies, so long as it’s done for “for the good of the cause”?

    If so, it is any wonder why people have an increasing tendency to dismiss such accusations?

  • If we reject false accusations of rape, it’s not because we don’t care about rape. It’s because we do care about justice.

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