There are no winners in the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s botched coverage of sexual assault on the University of Virginia’s flagship campus. A fraternity—now with questionable guilt—has seen its reputation tarnished, its house vandalized, and its chapter suspended. A magazine hoping to shed light on an important issue is at fault for a journalistic failure. Most importantly, a victim—whose character and integrity are being doubted—has been put under further scrutiny and pressure.
For these three, the negative implications are quite obvious. But the far more prolific loss is twofold: the distraction from the issues at hand, and the revitalization of people who claim most women lie about rape.
The latter assertion is simply untrue. Recent data suggests that only 2 to 8 percent of reported rapes are fabricated, which is no more than any other crime. In actuality, most women do not report their assault to police. Of every 100 rapes, 60 go unreported. There is no silver lining for the 40 that are reported. Of that group, only 10 lead to arrests, 8 lead to prosecution, 4 to a felony conviction and 3 spend a single day or more in jail. Suffice it to say that the odds are heavily weighted against victims of rape: even if they do report the incident, chances are that their attacker will walk free, and the victim will be stigmatized.
No matter how these statistics are presented, the damage has been done. Rolling Stone’s impressive reputation and massive audience helped the original article garner attention, giving much needed traction to a very important issue. This same mechanism is now having the opposite effect, as major components of Jackie’s story and the article come into question.
Where does this put other victims of sexual assault and rape? Before any part of the Rolling Stone coverage, victims had to contend with limited credibility, limited support networks, and social and administrative pressure against reporting or taking action. In the aftermath, all three of those factors have taken a big hit.
Just as mainstream society and media began to move away from victim blaming and towards holding perpetrators responsible, the credibility of victims is again being called into question. It doesn’t matter that statistics show events like this to be the minority. The damage has been done.
Jackie’s honesty, while important to the article, is relatively unimportant from a wider lens. Far too many schools are under investigation for mishandling of sexual assault cases, and UVA is one of twelve that are under increased scrutiny. In other words, UVA has serious issues with sexual assault, independent of Jackie’s own story. And if Jackie’s story is false, there are countless other ones, with storylines far too similar, that have gone untold with attackers unpunished. In the Rolling Stone article, other students who were victims of rape were mentioned, with special attention paid to the University’s mishandling of their cases.
Ultimately, this is not Jackie’s fault but the fault of Rolling Stone. They made a choice to not seek comment from any other parties involved, and took a serious risk by doing so. Placing trust in a victim is the correct thing to do for an administrator or police officer. But trust is simply inadequate when writing an article of such magnitude on the national stage.
Understandably, Jackie did not want the magazine to reach out to the fraternity or other involved parties, for her identification could have serious social repercussions for what was clearly already a difficult time in her life. And so, Rolling Stone made a judgment call when faced with a tough decision. In retrospect, it was clearly the wrong choice, though it was not as black and white when the choice was made. But, given the fallout from this article, how can victims expect their stories to be told? Trust is now much harder to come by, and would certainly include a far more invasive investigation than Rolling Stone’s.
The other group that deserves blame is the majority of society who continues to sit idly by while an estimated 1 in 5 women are sexually assault and/or raped in their college tenure. Worse, rape neither starts nor ends in a university setting. It is a lifelong danger to women and men. It is an endemic issue that we must face.
The first step is coming to terms with the existence and prevalence of rape. I’m sure many readers will pass this off with ideas such as “I’m not that type of person,” or “my friends aren’t like that.” That may very well be so, but chances are even if you know only a handful of women, this issue has personally affected one of them. So, criticize Rolling Stone, but criticize them for endangering progress in an issue that desperately needs attention and change.