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What’s Not Being Said about the Rolling Stone/UVA Rape Controversy

December 23, 2014

Last month, Rolling Stone published an article detailing the gang rape of a young woman at a frat house at the University of Virginia. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post published an article calling several details of the victim’s account into question. Namely, the fraternity in question didn’t have a party on the night that “Jackie”—the pseudonym of the victim—alleges her assault took place, and one of the men she said was involved was actually a member of a different frat. Additionally, some of the specific details of her account (number of men involved, nature of acts performed, where she was when she met friends for help afterwards) have changed from her earlier accounts.

This revelation led to an apology from Rolling Stone for not investigating the matter more thoroughly (published at the beginning of the article in the link above), and responses from other major media outlets have ranged in tone from critical reportage to harsh rebuttal. Most of the criticism, including those linked to above, stems from the idea that Rolling Stone didn’t follow journalistic protocol in fact-checking Jackie’s story. It’s the duty of journalists, they argue, to get every possible fact from every possible source, regardless (or perhaps even because) of how sensitive a story is. But these discrepancies also provide a rhetorical opportunity for feminists and other anti-violence advocates that I haven’t really seen anyone capitalizing on yet.

Many of these critiques of Rolling Stone also note that debates about journalistic integrity aside, the backlash against this article unfortunately shifts the focus of the discussion from the very real issue of how not just a single university but society at large handles sexual assault. Equally importantly, the discrepancies in Jackie’s story also provide fodder for people (using the word “people” in the most generous sense of the word) who view the story of any survivor of sexual assault with suspicion, seeking to quickly discredit victims in order to confirm their belief that women “cry rape.” Some of these schmucks even took enough time out from grinding for sick lootz in Warlords of Draenor or whatever to attempt to figure out and reveal Jackie’s true identity, because that’s the kind of world we live in now, apparently.

But here’s the thing that people could be making a lot clearer: their suspicion is on them. Not the author of the article, not Rolling Stone’s editor or the magazine as an institution, certainly not Jackie. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge that Rolling Stone couldn’t have done better research or talked to more people, I’m saying that we should be arguing that the inconsistencies in Jackie’s story don’t matter. It’s like psychology 101 that memory is inherently unreliable, especially when traumatic events, not to mention intoxicants, are involved. Even if it eventually comes out that Jackie is one of the like 8% (on the outside) of people claiming to have been sexually assaulted who made the whole damn thing up, until then it doesn’t matter. Does. Not. Matter. Because until victims of traumatic crimes of any sort are thoroughly discredited, we should believe them.

And before you even start, no, I am not saying that we should argue that her accused attackers are guilty until proven innocent. I am merely saying that her account deserves to be taken seriously (preferably by, y’know, cops and not just journalists and rhetoricians) until such time as it becomes impossible to do so. Until that point (and we are so, so far from that point), two truths, not mutually exclusive, hold: her alleged attackers remain innocent in the eye of the law, and her story remains one that is worthy of investigation.

To act like her story isn’t worthy of investigation because of a few minor discrepancies, or, perhaps even worse, to act like this proves that she’s lying, is dehumanizing. Not only is it dehumanizing, it’s dehumanizing someone who’s already likely been dehumanized enough. It violates the golden rule, and it makes you a scumbag.

Pointing this out could be a powerful tool for anyone wishing to criticize how our culture (read: men) reacts to sexual assault. It would provide a great opportunity to push back against the mindset that women who claim to have been assaulted are inherently suspect.

Unfortunately, this line of argument isn’t really that strongly represented in anything from Rolling Stone’s response to even Jezebel’s apologetic reportage on the matter. So, since I don’t see anyone else saying it, let me say this here to everyone desperate to discredit this story despite having absolutely no personal involvement in it whatsoever: at this point in time, your reaction to these discrepancies, your skepticism, your haste to dismiss says waaaaaaaaaaaay more about you than the discrepancies themselves say about Jackie or any other women who claim to be victims of sexual assault. And let me say this to Jackie, whoever she is, and to everyone else out there with a similar story to tell: until and unless there is an ironclad reason not to, I believe you.

If you want to know more:

  • What I’m suggesting here is that those of us in the “not misogynist scumbag” category push back against how these discrepancies are being portrayed (even in media sympathetic to our not misogynist ideologies) with a frame shift. George Lakoff literally wrote the book on frame shifts regarding issues of political and social import, and it’s called Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—the Essential Guide for Progressives. I think that there’s room within the current frame of “journalists need to fact check the bejeezus out of things” for a little more “but also at the moment there’s no reason to believe this woman is lying.”
  • As I was working on writing this post, this editorial came out in The New York Times arguing that women of lower economic classes are sexually victimized at even higher rates than women on college campuses. I certainly don’t want this piece to contribute, even in a small way, to the further marginalization of the economically disadvantaged by implying in any way that sexual assault on college campuses is the only kind of sexual assault we should be concerned with. But, I work at a college. Two of ’em, in fact. I therefore spend a lot of time on college campuses. So, of course, do my students and many of my friends. One of my close friends worked at UVA before coming to Pittsburgh. So, the Rolling Stone article hit home in a big way for all of us.
  • On a substantially lighter note, since this is likely to be our last post before next semester, on behalf of the whole editorial board here at TSTHQ I want to wish all of you happy holidays, full of love and friends and family and food (I know we missed the start of Hanukkah, sorry to those of you who celebrate it). We’re pretty good with words, it’s kind of our thing, but we still can’t even begin to express how grateful we are for your continued readership of our little labor of love here. The back half of 2014 has been a tough time to watch the news, because of this story and seemingly a million other godawful things happening around us. There were so many we didn’t even get to write about all of them, but we remain committed to our belief that through carefully planned and ethical public discourse (and through calling out public discourse that is neither of those things), the world can and will get better. Thank you all so much for hanging out with us in our little corner of the internet as we try to do our own small part to make that happen.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2014 12:04 pm

    Actually, this line of argument is one that I’ve been seeing in more activist circles—see #IStandWithJackie and

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      December 23, 2014 12:16 pm

      Ah, good. I haven’t seen that hashtag, and I did see that comment from her former roommate somewhere else. I still wish there were more calling out of the creeps accusing her of lying, but that’s just because I’m a confrontational jerk.

      I’m glad this is out there, though. Thank you so much for sharing it and bringing it to our attention!

      • December 23, 2014 1:37 pm

        No problem. And I agree that there should still be more people publicly calling out for her story to not be entirely dismissed, especially because her friends and former roommates have all come forward and said that something traumatic had definitely happened to her, even if they can’t confirm the details.

  2. Linda Flower permalink
    December 23, 2014 12:07 pm

    Matt and all you who write and work with TSTHQ, I greatly appreciate your labor of love, your imaginative thinking, and for letting me know about all the news and twitter i don’t have to read.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      December 23, 2014 12:18 pm

      Thank you so much, Linda! It means so much that you’ve been behind us since day 1!

  3. December 24, 2014 11:45 am

    Jackie made Haven Monahan BEFORE she could have experienced any “trauma”. And no, it is not “Psychology 101” that a woman who is raped would experience THIS KIND of extreme memory distortion. The things she made up were completely unbelievable.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      December 24, 2014 2:17 pm

      Hello Ralph. Thanks for reading, even if you did just come here to argue.

      First off, we’re going to have to disagree on a lot of your basic premises here. I object to your use of the phrase “made up” at this point in time, as you cannot possibly know that. I, for one, don’t find anything she said “completely unbelievable.” On the approximately 8% chance that evidence comes forward that Jackie DID in fact make all of this up, you will have been right all along and I will have been wrong all along and boy oh boy will I have egg on my face.

      Thing is, and my whole point in this post: I’d rather give someone in this situation the benefit of the doubt until I have a really good reason not to. Especially since sexual assaults are so dramatically underreported. And I have to ask you to ask yourself why you’re not willing to do the same.

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