Rolling Stone, UVA, and a Series of Missed Opportunities

TW: Sexual Assault

Let me start by saying this: I did not read the original Rolling Stone article about Jackie.  I did not read it, not because I did not believe it to be important, which of course it was and is, and not because I did not think there was a conversation to be had, because I of course believe this is a problem, but because to be honest, I was told that reading the article could well be triggering for me.

That’s my first problem with the Rolling Stone article.  Stories about surviving sexual violence don’t actually need to be grounded in such detail that they present a problem for those who may be close to the issue, such that they feel they cannot even engage.  There’s a related problem with the inclusion of these details, however, that I will get to in a moment, because the real problem with this article is not that it’s graphic; it’s that since its initial publication, Rolling Stone has horribly mismanaged the conversation.

I haven’t said much-~-or anything, really-~-about this issue until now, in large part because I am not sure I can say it better than others already have. But I think that there are important conversations that could be had, that should have been had, and Rolling Stone’s mismanagement of this case means that we lost out on those opportunities; and I wanted to take a minute to at least pull together some of the great commentary that has already been made on this subject, and to remind everyone of a few important things about sexual assault.

First off, false rape accusations are not incredibly common, as some would have you believe.  Data from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women shows that false claims account for between 2-8% of reported assaults, on par with other violent crimes.  Let me pre-empt anyone who is about to say that if all those people are going to jail, that is still a tragedy-~-it would be, if that were happening, but the reality is that only about 25% of reported rapes even lead to an arrest, and only 80% of those are actually prosecuted; an even smaller number are convicted.

Second, as much as I want to talk about the issue of sexual assault here, I think we need to take a moment to realize that Rolling Stone essentially threw their source under the bus.  Instead of making their article about a campus-wide, and indeed, nationwide problem, they made it about one particular student, and named her alleged attackers such that there was an incentive for the fraternity in question to mobilize the necessary resources to tear apart her story.  If the Washington Post is to be believed, Jackie asked that her specific account be removed before the story was published; whether or not that is true, Rolling Stone nevertheless failed to protect their source, and in fact, probably hurt any potential case she might have been able to build regarding her alleged attackers.

These journalistic issues matter, though, because campus rape is a massive problem in the United States, and Rolling Stone‘s handling of this issue makes it less likely that the next survivor who wants to tell his or her story will feel able to come forward.  Authors Jessica Valenti and Roxane Gay have already made public statements to this effect, expressing their concerns over how the handling of this story will impact the way survivors feel they can interact with the media.  The Daily Dot gives a great overview of how Rolling Stone erred here, from their failure to provide a solid enough story to protect their source, to the ways in which their retraction undermined her narrative and has resulted in her being threatened and targeted.

Third, I want to say this about Jackie, and about survivors of sexual violence more generally: just because there are discrepancies in her story does not mean that she is lying.  Better, more respected sources than the Radical Idea have already put forth statements on this, but they’re worth echoing here, because the reality is that many survivors of sexual assault have trouble remembering exact details; their accounts may be incoherent or inconsistent, as their brains struggle to make sense of what happened, or struggle between needing to remember and needing to forget.  What the Daily Dot‘s article highlights is the fact that, since PTSD can impact survivors’ memories, details may be jumbled or incorrect, particularly at first-~-but even if Jackie mis-remembered how long her assault lasted, which is likely since recollections of time are among the memories most distorted by trauma, or incorrectly identified which fraternity she was at, that still does not mean she is lying about having been assaulted.

Amanda Taube, writing for Vox on her experiences as a lawyer working with refugees and trauma survivors, notes that problems in remembering traumatic events are common, and that “the problem…was not that people were making up stories, but that the details that seemed important to me were not what mattered to them.”  Her article delves into the ways in which trauma can make it difficult to recall memories that may simply be too painful, and the subsequent problems journalists face when trying to report on traumatic events.

Rolling Stone could have used this as an opportunity to talk about these issues-~-to give America a chance to have a meaningful conversation on how trauma impacts survivors, on what that means for journalism and how we interact with those who have been victimized.  They also could have used it to talk about how our common narratives about rape do not fit the realities of the violence occurring in this country.  What people wanted from Jackie-~-what they seem to want from survivors generally-~-is some kind of perfect story.  Writing for BuzzFeed, Jade Reindl explains that:

There’s so much pressure put onto victims to present our story in the “correct” way. Your account shouldn’t make someone feel uncomfortable. It shouldn’t alienate them. What if someone were to feel, I don’t know, guilt after hearing it? What if they realized they were an active participant in rape culture themselves?

MSNBC’s Irin Carmon also addresses this myth of the “perfect victim”: the girl who wasn’t dressed provocatively, who doesn’t sleep around, who didn’t/doesn’t drink, who goes on actual dates or has a boyfriend; the “perfect victim’s” attackers are strangers, or already-problematic men who morph from people to monsters.  We are more accepting of this narrative, less likely to victim-blame, because all of the behaviors that people want to say they do not do and that will therefore result in them staying safe, are no longer present.

But this narrative is a part of rape culture, a part of the idea that it is on victims not to get raped, or that if you engage in certain behaviors, it is okay for someone to violate your boundaries, or to claim they “didn’t know’.  Rape isn’t just committed by raucous frat boys or a stranger in the bushes; about 75% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and about a quarter are committed by intimate partners.  And it doesn’t matter if someone has had sex with a string of previous partners, or drinks, or wears short skirts-~-those things are not illegal, they do not violate the rights of other people.  Rape is, and does.

Like I said, Rolling Stone had an opportunity to address this, to make the story about how we react to and treat survivors, to give America a chance to perhaps have a desperately-needed conversation about victim-blaming, trusting victims, and facilitating justice.  But they passed on this opportunity as well, instead backtracking desperately to cover the fact that they failed to follow basic journalistic ethics for reporting on sexual violence.

No one wins in this case: not Jackie, who may lose out on a chance to really pursue justice now; not Rolling Stone, now the subject of many critiques; and not survivors of sexual assault, whose stories will continue to come under fire, and who may now have to compete with renewed claims that “women lie” as society seeks to discredit them.  There were conversations we needed to have, and at the moment, the best I am hoping for is that Jackie is able to get justice for what has happened, and that the journalism community is taking this time to meaningfully consider their obligations when reporting on sexual violence.  Here’s hoping this never happens again.

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~ by Randi Saunders on December 10, 2014.

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