On Nov. 19, Rolling Stone published an explosive exposé about campus sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA). The article, which centered around the story of Jackie, a UVA student who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped at a fraternity during the fall of 2012, got international attention. Since then, major holes have emerged in Rolling Stone’s account of that night, leading the publication to issue a note apologizing to their readers and “anyone who was affected by the story.”
Many on UVA’s campus and outside of it have been understandably upset for a number of reasons -- at Rolling Stone’s lack of fact-checking, at the way the discrepancies in this one story might set back on-campus dialogue about rape or perpetuate the myth that lots of women report rape falsely, and at Rolling Stone’s management for trying to initially place the burden of fault on their own source. But some readers and online commenters have directed the brunt of their anger at Jackie herself, going as far as to disseminate her alleged identity and contact information around the web, and call her story a “hoax.”
Here’s why that claim is so problematic: Calling something a hoax implies there was a specific intention to deceive, often maliciously. It implies that every piece of Jackie’s account is false, that she is a girl who set out to entrap and defame men by creating a fantastical (and brutal) story, that she had some hidden agenda and something tangible to gain from recounting this violent tale to a Rolling Stone reporter. There is no question that Rolling Stone’s editorial staff and reporter have some serious explaining to do. They did not do their due diligence on this piece, and in that failure, let down both Jackie and their readers in a major way. But discrepancies in a graphic and extremely-detailed story -- even enough discrepancies to discredit the story in a court of public opinion and journalism -- do not a “hoax” make.
As UVA student Emily Clark, who also happened to be Jackie’s freshman year suite-mate, wrote in a piece for The Cavalier Daily:
While I cannot say what happened that night, and I cannot prove the validity of every tiny aspect of her story to you, I can tell you that this story is not a hoax, a lie or a scheme. Something terrible happened to Jackie at the hands of several men who have yet to receive any repercussions. Whether the details are correct or not, and whether the reporting was faulty, or the hazy memories of a traumatizing night got skewed…the blame should never fall on the victim’s shoulders.
Let’s remember that Jackie is a human being -- a human being, who, by all accounts likely was traumatized at a frat house in 2012. (Even Jackie's friend "Andy," whose story has been used to discredit details of Rolling Stone's reporting, says that Jackie told him that she had "been at a frat party and a group of men forced her to perform oral sex.")
There are many reasons why victims of sexual assault might skew the details of their own stories. As Vanessa Valenti pointed out on Twitter, a 2009 report from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women outlines a few of these explanations. (1) Trauma can contribute to a partially incorrect retelling of an incident, especially if that trauma involves drugs or alcohol. (2) Victims might feel uncomfortable relaying certain details of an assault and therefore swap others in, such as describing an incident that involved forced oral sex as forced vaginal penetration. (3) Victims may leave out “unflattering” parts of the narrative that they feel would make them less “credible.” (4) According to the NCPVAW report, the most common reason a victim of sexual assault or rape would change parts of their story is out of fear of not being believed. As the report’s authors’ wrote:
Just like everyone else in society, sexual assault victims know the stereotype of a “real rape” -- that it is perpetrated by a stranger with a weapon or physical violence, that it is reported to law enforcement immediately, and that the victim is emotionally hysterical. In an effort to be believed, therefore, victims may change aspects of the reported incident to make it sound more like this stereotype.
Men and women who come forward about sexual assault are routinely blamed for what happened to them and harassed by those who don’t believe them. So it's not surprising that men and women who experience sexual violence don’t always have the clearest or most reliable memories of their own trauma, or that they might feel pressure to be more “perfect victims."
All of this is obscured when we start calling Rolling Stone’s poor journalistic judgment a “UVA hoax.” Just peruse the hashtag #UVAHoax to see the rhetoric that emerges when you start talking about sexual assault allegations as though they’re the same thing as Hitler’s fake diaries or Maucalay Culkin's supposed death.
Do feminists even care about rape when it doesn't involve rich white guys? Asking for a friend. #UVAHoax
— Avi Woolf (@AviWoolf) December 7, 2014
Is the femenazi SBP at UVA going to issue the fraternities an apology? Of course not, because they are men, and she hates them #UVAHoax
— NF (@Johumphr) December 9, 2014
Repeat after me: Very few women falsely report assault. Very few women falsely report assault. Very few women falsely report assault. Now, repeat it again a few more times for good measure. The stats show that false reports of sexual assault and rape probably fall between 2 and 8 percent. Men on college campuses are actually more likely to experience sexual assault than they are to be falsely accused of committing it.
This reality should have made it even clearer to Rolling Stone's editors that it was their job to chase down the details and verify Jackie’s account. And if the facts didn’t line up in exactly the right way, they should have used different, perhaps less sensationalist, first-person testimony to lead the feature with. We shouldn’t live in a world where it takes a brutal gang rape of a young woman who hasn’t been binge-drinking to make us give a shit about the epidemic of campus sexual assault. Jackie is not alone. And whether or not every detail of the account she gave Rolling Stone is accurate, there are many other “imperfect” victims for whom her story rang true.
Rolling Stone failed Jackie and others like her, but the rest of us don’t have to.