Less than two weeks after Rolling Stone published its blockbuster story about a UVA student who was allegedly gang-raped in a fraternity ritual, a media backlash is brewing. From Reason to The New Republic, journalists are fretting about the sourcing hazards of a narrative story about a sexual assault that depends heavily on the victim’s account, in case this one turns out to be an elaborate hoax. Their skepticism of writer Sabrina Erdely mirrors the disproportionate scrutiny that sexual assault victims face at the hands of the police. But without the same stakes as a criminal prosecution (conviction or wrongful conviction) it’s worth asking: To what end are we scrutinizing?
Richard Bradley, the editor-in-chief of wealth-management magazine Worth, led the charge on his personal blog, where he wrote that he was “not convinced that this gang rape actually happened.” Some of the details in writer Erdely’s telling confused Bradley, who believes gang rape mostly happens in “war-torn lands or countries with a strain of a punitive, misogynist and violent religious culture (Pakistan, for example).” According to Rolling Stone, other women said they were gang-raped at UVA, and I can think of a handful of similar cases off the top of my head, all of which took place in peaceful democracies — Texas, Johns Hopkins University, Canada, New Zealand. Nonetheless, Bradley has been fooled once. The alleged UVA victim, identified as “Jackie,” reminded Bradley of Stephen Glass, the disgraced journalist whose fabricated stories slipped past Bradley’s editorial judgment when he edited Glass at George because, he says, “they corroborated my pre-existing biases.”
It’s not clear how Jackie’s alleged ordeal at the hands of Virginia frat boys could corroborate Bradley’s biased notion ... of violent, religious Pakistanis. But even if we apply Bradley’s logic to the world of campus sex and feminist commentary, it doesn’t quite track. A standard-issue story of boozy sex between frat boys and drunk freshman girls would seem to confirm feminist biases about male sexual entitlement — and it would be pretty easy to believe. A story of premeditated ritual gang rape, however — the kind of story Jackie told Erdely — is so far beyond the pale that it’s almost unbelievable to begin with. It’s hard to imagine anyone but a pathological liar making it up.
The UVA story shocked even feminist writers who read rape horror stories day in and day out. Slate’s "Double X" podcast panel was audibly baffled, interrogating Erdely about her reporting. “What made you believe her story was true?” Hanna Rosin asked. In the absence of a police report and third-party witnesses, rape stories (like rape trials) often devolve into he said, she said. Dozens of interviews with Jackie’s friends convinced Erdely of Jackie’s credibility. As for the alleged rapists, Erdely said she wasn’t able to reach them. Slate’s follow-up reporting suggests Jackie was uncooperative in identifying the men — for narrative purposes, one is called “Drew” — because she is terrified of their retaliation. In another interview, Erdely won’t say whether she knows who they are, because of an agreement with Jackie. Her editor has said that although the men could not be contacted, the magazine knows who they are. For the magazine’s readers, Drew and the other alleged rapists are completely unidentifiable.
Media critics have taken Erdely to task for not pressing Jackie to confirm their identities and allow her to track them down in person, though single-source narration happens without incident in less sensitive stories all the time. (There probably wasn’t anybody around to corroborate some of the details of GQ’s lauded feature on hermit Christopher Knight, either.) What makes Jackie’s story arguably different is the magnitude of her accusations: Critics of the story say that the men deserved a chance to offer their side of the story before having their names smeared. Except, what names? The only identified entity at risk of reputational harm in Rolling Stone is Phi Kappa Psi, leaders of which Erdely did reach. “Although at this time we have no specific knowledge of the claims set out in the Rolling Stone article, we take this matter — and these tragic allegations — very seriously,” they wrote in a statement. The UVA chapter notified Phi Kappa Psi brass, which notified the police.
It’s not uncommon for rape survivors to want to talk about what happened to them without instigating a drawn-out, invasive, and often-futile police investigation, especially when their alleged rapist is powerful. Some recent accusations of sexual abuse have begun as blind-item-y personal essays, like the xoJane article that ultimately led to Jian Ghomeshi’s firing. But, again, accusing high-status men of rape — even pseudonymously — can seem like a greater cause for alarm than the abuse itself.
And compared with how many sexual assaults go unreported, there’s an outsize paranoia about false reports of rape, which has been frustratingly hard to shut down empirically. As Megan McArdle explained, it’s a “dark number,” possibly unknowable. Also mysterious is the motive a woman would have for fabricating a gang rape, talking about it in a campus support group, then anonymously sharing it with a journalist. Stephen Glass lied for professional acclaim; his stories were engineered to dupe those in charge of his next assignment. Reporting rape means opening yourself up to unpaid and uncomfortable scrutiny and judgment. (One writer conjectured that Bill Cosby’s accusers were “aging actresses who have one eye on the CNN camera, and the other on a book or reality show deal.”) By demanding total anonymity for her and her assailants, Jackie stands to gain neither fame nor revenge. Aside from some canceled parties, no young man’s future has been imperiled by the story. At this point, more anti-rape protesters have been arrested than alleged rapists.
Washington Post critic Erik Wemple argued that Erdely’s one-sided story left “Jackie” vulnerable to intense doubters. At Slate, Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin argued that by not naming and confronting the rapists, Erdely made the same mistake as UVA’s administration: “They both deferred to the victim’s sensitivities to such an extent that they failed to out the alleged rapists.” The difference is that UVA has a responsibility to protect its students from psycho frat boys. Rolling Stone doesn’t. Erdely’s job was to get Jackie’s story — which was reportedly ignored by the UVA administration — out to the public. Erdely probably had to sacrifice identifying the alleged rapists beyond the name of their fraternity in order to make Jackie comfortable enough to go on the record.
Bradley concludes that if you “believe [Rolling Stone’s story] beyond a doubt” you’re taking a leap of faith. To that end, it’s a good thing that magazine journalism — unlike jury duty — makes no such demand. For readers, believing “Jackie” (or any woman) when she says someone did something terrible to her is not the same thing as sending “Drew” to jail. It just means following Erdely in the (still, apparently, radical) move of taking a traumatized young woman at her word. At this point, the benefits of believing Jackie if she is telling the truth (forcing reform at UVA, encouraging other women to come forward) outweigh the risks of believing Jackie if she is lying (unnecessary wariness about Phi Kappa Psi). If Jackie lies in a consequential way — slandering a person by his real name, or making false accusations to the police — there will be legal repercussions. But the preemptive backlash makes it feel like presumed innocence is a privilege reserved for purported rapists and not their purported victims.
No journalist wants to fall for the next Stephen Glass or Duke lacrosse case. But Erdely wrote the piece in such a way that she and Rolling Stone — not Jackie and Drew — are the ones who will be most damaged by a false report. Meanwhile, the journalist backlash is putting feminists who believe in believing women in the uncomfortable position of hoping Jackie told the truth about her gang rape. Not because we want to confirm our biases about monstrous men, but because we’d hate to see confirmation for sexist biases about lying, attention-seeking women. In other words, we’re backed into the corner of hoping someone was gang-raped on broken glass — and how can that possibly constitute a happy ending? If anything, we should hope that Jackie is lying. Then exactly zero lives will have been ruined in this story.