If the Rolling Stone story regarding the account of “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student allegedly gang raped as part of a fraternity initiation didn’t happen the way it was described, rape victims and advocates trying to fix the system will be set back years — perhaps even decades.
The issue of sexual assault was thrown into the national discussion following Jackie’s story, but now people — including many considered feminists — are questioning aspects of the explosive article by author Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
Among those questioning Erdely’s reporting — namely, her lack of contact with the alleged rapists in the article — is Slate’s Hanna Rosin, author of the book, The End of Men. On her DoubleX Gabfest podcast this week, Rosin repeatedly asked Erdely if she spoke to the alleged rapists. Erdely, after multiple dodges, eventually said she “reached out to them in multiple ways” but, “they were kind of hard to get in touch with.” Erdely’s attempt to get the other side of the story consisted of her emailing with the fraternity chapter’s president and then speaking with the “national guy.”
That feeble attempt did not sit well with Rosin, who on Tuesday published a lengthy article with co-author Allison Benedikt about Erdely’s apparent oversight. Benedikt and Rosin wrote that they were told by Erdely’s editor that he was “done talking about the story” and that Erdely herself directed the pair to Rolling Stone’s public relations department. Rosin also spoke with some of Jackie’s friends, who told her the alleged rape victim became upset when Erdely asked about the alleged rapists, and described her reaction as “extreme” when pressed for more information.
Erdely herself has said she left out the names of the accused because of an agreement with Jackie. The New York Times, who spoke with people “familiar with the reporting process” who didn’t wish to be named, confirmed this, saying Jackie asked for her alleged rapists to not be contacted.
That should have caused Erdely to pause, according to National Journal editor Amy Sullivan, who tweeted about the Rolling Stone article Tuesday night.
To be clear, Jackie shouldn't need to tell anyone who these guys are. But then hers is not the right story to tell for your magazine.— Amy Sullivan (@sullivanamy) December 3, 2014
Rosin and Benedikt wrote that Jackie backed out of an interview with them, but has reportedly spoken to the Washington Post for a yet to be published story.
The two Slate writers interviewed Caitlin Flanagan, an Atlantic author who has investigated fraternity behavior, who said she had never seen anything like what was described by Jackie in Rolling Stone.
In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this. I did find reports of women who were raped by multiple men on one night — but those always involved incapacitation, either by alcohol or a drugged drink. And I did also find accounts of violent, push-down rape of the kind in the essay — but those were always by one member, not a bunch of members. (In fact, many of that kind — now that I think about it — were committed by non-members, or by visiting former members). But a planned gang rape, without alcohol or drugs, and keyed to initiation — I have never seen a case like that. Nor have I seen penetration with a foreign object — I’ve seen plenty of that committed by brothers to pledges as hazing, but I haven’t seen it in sexual assault cases. I’m sure it’s happened, but again — as part of a ritualized gang rape. ... Never anything like it.
Flanagan had been invited to speak with fraternity advisers about rape, which she described as a “huge opening” in how they address the problem.
But Flanagan also expressed fear about what would happen if the Rolling Stone story, which has done so much to raise awareness about rape within fraternity culture, unraveled. “[I]f this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years,” she said.
More broadly, Flanagan said that if the story isn't true, “it is going to cause so much trouble in the area of reforming fraternity sexual assault, I can’t even tell you.”
The RS piece won't make me less likely to believe rape victims. But it will make me sharper reader of stories re rape. For better or worse.— Amy Sullivan (@sullivanamy) December 3, 2014
It’s not difficult to see how a sensational but ultimately one-sided rape accusation could hurt victims. I don’t doubt that something happened to Jackie that night at the fraternity party, but whether it happened as she described is now less clear. Even Erdely herself conceded to the Washington Post: "It’s impossible to know for certain what happened in that room, because I wasn’t in it. But I certainly believe that she described an experience that was incredibly traumatic to her.”
If it turns out that the men accused don’t even exist (we’re assured by Rolling Stone that they do, but their confirmation seems to come only from Jackie’s friends who were not in the room that night) then women everywhere who report being raped and who have been fighting for police and universities to take their reports seriously will be severely set back.
Because Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse accusations are more well known than Cheryl Araujo, and if this turns out to be another fabricated (or, more likely, exaggerated) story of gang rape, it will be more difficult for rape victims to have their stories believed.