What We Can Learn From the Botched UVA Rape Story

Emily Freed

Rape is a horrifying crime that not only plagues America’s college campuses, but usually fails to gain a response from the campus authorities as well. In the case of one UVA rape story, a student, who went by the pseudonym “Jackie,” managed to beat the odds and get her story out into the open. Unfortunately, the details of that story were found out to be completely fabricated and no sufficient evidence was found following numerous investigations from law enforcement and private investigators. Despite Rolling Stones’ intent to bring about meaningful change, they, in fact, may have proven the point of critics by not adhering to the highest possible journalistic standards.

She told her tale of how she was deceived by her date and led into a room where she was forced to performing oral sex on seven men. She told Rolling Stone that she was advised to keep the terrifying story of her gang-rape a secret by her closest friends and had to deal with the nightmarish event on her own, until she decided to make her story known.

Unfortunately, stories of rapes and sexual assaults from college students are widespread. The main difference between “Jackie’s” story and the numerous, verifiable others is that “Jackie’s” story has serious reasons to be doubted. Rolling Stone, as a result of their negligence, reported on the only story that would invalidate their attempt to bring awareness to college rapes. As the television personality, Jon Stewart, so expertly concluded of the article, Rolling Stone “somehow in a sea of verifiable assaults, manage[d] to ‘where’s waldo’ the only rape story that would not only fail to get [their] point across, but set the cause back.”

However, the mistakes Rolling Stone made in the handling of the UVA rape case should not convince the world that many rape stories are false. There are thousands of rape cases in colleges, with one study concluding that 1 out of 5 women will experience a form of sexual assault, whether it be rape, unwanted groping or anything in between, during their college experience (Campus Sexual Assault Study). If anything, this story should convince the readers that a greater look into campus security and handling of rape cases is necessary.

Image courtesy of newyorker.com.
Image courtesy of newyorker.com.

Columbia Journalism Review wrote a report that listed the inconsistencies and errors between the Rolling Stone article and the stories of “Jackie’s” friends. They found ultimate fault with the journalists in charge of the article, not with “Jackie.” Even the author,  Sabrina Erdely, admitted that they trusted “Jackie” too strongly and, instead of using other sources to fact-check their story, relied only on “Jackie” because of the “sensitive nature of [her] story.”

The Columbia Report revealed that Rolling Stone failed to follow the “basic tenants of journalism” in their undertaking of the UVA rape case. They failed to coordinate their story with the fraternity that “Jackie” believed was the home of her rapist. The fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, argued that there was no party or function the night “Jackie” claimed she was raped. In addition, “Jackie’s” close friends told other news outlets that, unlike “Jackie” had disclosed to Rolling Stone, they encouraged her to seek assistance and to tell others. Finally, the Columbia Report noted differences in “Jackie’s” and her close friends’ descriptions of her injuries. “Jackie” claimed she was bloodied and beaten, while her friends said that she was “not physically injured” but shaken by the events of the night. Her friends don’t doubt that something, perhaps sexual assault, happened that night, but they do doubt her original story.

The true importance of this case is not to mistrust teenagers or to doubt women’s experiences as survivors of sexual assault. This is no game of “the Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Instead, the blame should fully lie with Rolling Stone. Many believe that the reason Rolling Stone chose this particular rape story was due to its sensationalist details. Erdley chose the UVA rape story not because it reflected the average experience of sexually assaulted women on college campuses, but because it was the most horrifying story she could find. Many magazines love to search for a sensational story; the appeal is widespread. It draws in readers from all demographics, with their human fascination for the terrifying and evil driving them to read something they know will horrify them.

Despite the many mistakes of the Rolling Stone article, it is still important acknowledge the pervasiveness of rape culture. It is a well-known fact that many women are targeted for rape and sexual assault during their time in college, but that does not mean that college authorities are making any improvements in stopping them. Though many colleges have systems in place to report rapes and prevent them from occurring, the sheer number of stories that exist about failed attempts to convict one’s rapist and horror stories about colleges’ handling of rapes attest to the fact that, as a country, America is still lacking in protecting women. We need to do better. The worst thing someone could take away from the Rolling Stone mishap is to mistrust stories of sexual assaults. Women are already doubted enough as it is; the only solution to the problem of sexual assaults on college students is to put in a place a better system to handle their reports that will actually convict and take legal action against their rapists. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) statistics on rape say that only 2% of individuals who commit a sexual assault are sent to prison. This is an issue which, though it is taken seriously, still requires further remedy. Today, due to the ineffectiveness and ostracizing effect of reporting on-campus rapes, many women are deterred and instead choose to not tell anyone. These women need a safe environment where they will receive help, not shame or doubt.

Magazines like Rolling Stone should focus on improving the experiences of college women by bringing awareness to the problem of on-campus rapes instead of using inaccurate and unnecessarily sensationalist stories. The problem with rape journalism is that, unless the story is unnaturally horrifying, no one cares. The media is responsible for bringing light to the verifiable rape cases and bringing justice to those who were wronged; they should not be worsening the problem for the victims.