Yesterday Rolling Stone issued a statement that essentially retracts its November 19 story about a fraternity-organized gang rape of a student named Jackie at the University of Virginia. We know now that the gang rape could not have, for logistical reasons, happened the way Jackie said or involved the people that she said were involved. Rolling Stone admits that it should have vetted these basic facts before publishing the story. In not doing so, the magazine has not only cast unwarranted negative attention on the fraternity in question and on UVA. Additionally, the magazine has set back efforts to address the very real problem of sexual assault on university and college campuses.
One of those negative consequences is the threat that the retraction of high profile story about campus sexual assault will fuel a stereotype (myth) that lying about rape is a thing women do. Yet, the fact that Jackie’s story has “discrepancies” (as Rolling Stone called them) does not necessarily mean she was maliciously lying; and it certainly does not mean that other women who report sexual assault are lying. Certainly, the negative attention women receive for reporting sexual assault casts doubts on the possibility that women lie for self-serving goals. Moreover, there are other plausible explanations for the inaccuracies in Jackie’s story. As Hannah Rosin suggested in Slate, it is possible Jackie is in fact the victim of sexual assault, the trauma of which is clouding the details in her memory. Or perhaps changing details about the story consciously or unconsciously makes her feel safer from the threat of retaliation. These possibilities, that actually speak to the need to support victims rather than discount them, are overlooked if we jump to the conclusion that Jackie lied/women lie about rape.
I am also concerned that the Rolling Stone retraction could be weaponized as an argument against Title IX. This would be truly unfortunate, as there is nothing about this story that warrants changing the requirements under law that college campuses respond promptly and equitably to reports of sexual assault. A Title IX-compliant disciplinary process would have revealed the “discrepancies” that came up in the re-reporting of the original Rolling Stone story and would not have sanctioned the accused individual (called “Drew” in the story) or his fraternity. Jackie’s story would not have satisfied the preponderance of evidence standard that the Department of Education requires under Title IX. So this story does not support an argument that we need to impose extra procedural protections for those accused of rape.
Moreover, if we accept the possibility that Jackie was not maliciously lying but was struggling with accuracy as a result of trauma or fear, that too speaks to the importance of a Title IX-compliant disciplinary process. If students trust the system, they will feel safe and supported in reporting assault right away, when details are fresh and can more easily be accurately conveyed. Prompt reporting also gives the university the opportunity to provide mental help support that could perhaps prevent the memory-clouding effects of trauma. And given that a Title IX-compliant response also affords the victim protection from retaliation, such reporting could also mitigate the role fear might play in accessing the truth.
For all we know, if Jackie had access to a robust, trustworthy, equitable disciplinary process, she might have reported her assault right away to supportive and truth-seeking campus officials, rather than to a reporter two years later. The university’s disciplinary response would have been focused in the right individual or individuals, rather than on those who were apparently not involved. For these reasons, a Title IX-compliant process should appeal to those worried sexual assault and those worried about the possibility of false accusations.
It would be all too easy for campus officials, government officials, victims and others to use this story as an excuse to disregard victims or roll back the requirements of Title IX. Those who support sexual assault victims and Title IX have to acknowledge that threat and confront it in their advocacy.