Rolling Stone's missteps distract from the real story of campus rape

On Nov. 19, Rolling Stone magazine published a horrifying account of the gang rape of an unsuspecting freshman at a University of Virginia fraternity party, including how her date for the evening called out directions and encouragement to the men who were assaulting her.

She said she left the party bloodied, half-naked and in shock.


The lengthy story, written by veteran freelancer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, went on to chronicle the go-along-if-you-want-to-get-along responses of the woman's friends and UVA's seeming determination to protect its brand instead of its vulnerable co-eds.

The university responded with shock and horror, shut the Greek system down for a token few weeks at the end of the term, and turned the 2012 case over to the Charlottesville police for investigation.


But Rolling Stone, the author and the young woman identified as Jackie came under intense scrutiny. Why hadn't the perpetrators been named if everyone on campus knew who they were? Why hadn't they been asked to respond to the charges? Where was the corroborative evidence of that horrible night?

Ms. Erdely says Jackie asked her not to name or contact the men because she was afraid. The author said she corroborated Jackie's account and its aftermath with Jackie's friends and with administrators. Ms. Erdely said she found Jackie eminently credible.

On Friday, a detailed fact-checking by The Washington Post and an apology to its readers by Rolling Stone cast Jackie's story in grave doubt. The magazine said it was misled.

Early on, skeptics asked if the whole thing wasn't a hoax. An apocryphal story built on the well-known narrative of heavy drinking (Jackie said she was not drunk), fraternities and unwanted sexual contact?

Now it appears it may have been just that, and the damage extends far beyond the reputations of the magazine, the author and the young woman who told this story.

Will any college student who cries rape be believed now? What college woman will come forward if she knows she will face this new skepticism?

What young woman will tell her story when she knows she may face the unrelenting questions of a phalanx of journalists in addition to those of university officials or police?

Are fraternities and sports team houses, often the scene of unholy parties, safe from scrutiny now?

Universities have been encouraging women to report sexual assaults and — I am sure with great pain — posting the numbers for parents to see in a new era of transparency. Will all those numbers have an asterisk now?

Universities have been scrambling to dial back the standards of proof a woman must provide before action is taken against the accused in order to answer Department of Education criticism of their insensitive handling of sexual assault cases.

Will they now plug in the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" and break for happy hour?

What an ungodly mess.


The Rolling Stone article about UVA, where Yeardley Love was murdered by her drunken boyfriend in 2010 and where sophomore Hannah Graham recently disappeared after a party and was later found dead, looked like it might finally bring this dirty campus practice into the light.

Now it has degenerated into a conversation about journalistic best practices instead of one about the insensitivity or the incompetence of colleges when investigating crimes on campus — most notably rape — that could harm their reputations.

I refused to believe that the only answer is to send our daughters to college with a set of tactics that will help them avoid being raped. To teach them that rape should be expected, like all-nighters during finals and the freshman 15. But that is what every parent must now do.

We had a chance to talk about whether a university disciplinary board can substitute itself for the criminal justice system — when its employer's reputation is at stake — and be at all credible.

We won't be having that conversation now. We will be talking about slip-shod journalism and the motives and mental health of a young woman we know as Jackie.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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