Why I Still Believe Rape Survivors

A University of Virginia student looks over postings on the door of Peabody Hall related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape alleg
A University of Virginia student looks over postings on the door of Peabody Hall related to the Phi Kappa Psi gang rape allegations at the school in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The university has suspended activities at all campus fraternal organizations amid an investigation into a published report in which a student described being sexually assaulted by seven men in 2012 at the Phi Kappa Psi house. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A now ubiquitous article in Rolling Stone released just two weeks ago has and continues to raise important issues pertaining to how rape cases tend to play out, both at UVA and in our society at large. As people begin to question the integrity of the journalist who broke this story, the veracity of the survivor, and whether this whole issue should ever have been raised in the first place, there are many lessons we can all learn today and as this story continues to unfold. First, many people who have a vested interest in maintaining their reputation will stop at nothing -- including disparaging a gang rape survivor -- to keep it. Second, Post Traumatic Stress leads many to behave in ways that are difficult to understand. Third, our culture needs to shift from doubting the word of a survivor to being seriously critical about the expressed denials of accused felons.

In the incident that has so galvanized the attention of the public recently, several of "Jackie's" alleged friends are reported to have refused to take her to the hospital for fear of the repercussions to Jackie's reputation, and to their own chances of attending fraternity parties. This callous disregard for the safety of a fellow students have now been amplified by artfully worded denials from UVA's Phi Psi chapter and even by some of those who say they are trying to help end rape at UVA. Despite the obsession that some at UVA have in prioritizing reputation over human welfare as now has been laid bare, we all have even more reason to believe that Jackie was gang raped at Phi Psi, that UVA has a deeper cultural problem with rape than we could ever have imagined, and that the way this story has played out teaches us a great deal about how not to treat a woman who has survived a horrific trauma.

Ask yourself. When someone is accused of a felony, what is his most common reaction? "It wasn't me!" "I didn't do it!" When a group of men are accused of a crime, it is all too common that they close ranks and fight back, whether they are a fraternity, athletic team, or street gang. Such individuals aren't men of character; rather, they are boys who can shave. Men take responsibility. Boys deny responsibility and lie to cover it up.

The way that the national fraternity in question is behaving has lessons to teach all of us about why we should be use our critical thinking skills when listening to a group responsible for a venue where a gang rape has been alleged. In an apparent attempt to discredit the word of a woman who has consistently described the central events surrounding her gang rape at the hands of men located in the Phi Psi house, brothers exclaim that no member of their chapter worked at a particular location on campus where Jackie's alleged perpetrator is said to have been employed. While at first this seems damning, recall that in the original Rolling Stone story, a man in the room where the gang rape was reported said "Don't you want to be a brother?" This statement itself shows that the attacker wasn't a technical "Member" of Phi Psi, but was likely either trying to get a bid (rushing), or trying to move from probationary status to membership (pledging). An 18-year-old young woman invited to a fraternity house is unlikely to know the difference between a rushee, pledge or member. She just knows that a guy invited her there and she was subsequently gang raped.

In a press release, Phi Psi claims that they did not have a date function or social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012. Having been in a fraternity and talking with others whose fraternity experience is more recent, I can tell you that the most out of control nights happen when there wasn't anything official happening. It is also a good possibility that an individual, in the cloud of PTSD, misremembers an exact date. Certainly if a gang rape was planned, the chapter would have every reason not to register an official social gathering with their University.

We should also be highly critical of statements by national fraternities implying that they wouldn't violate university policy on when they take in new members, particularly when such an organization has had a confirmed gang rape in that very location where a brother was tried and convicted of rape and spent jail time.

While some seem seriously concerned about alleged discrepancies in "Jackie's" statements, we need to look beneath the surface. Why? Ask yourself this question. If you told the same story about something that happened to you to several different people, or to the same person several times, do you think you would tell it exactly the same way every time? If you are human and not a cyborg, you would emphasize different details each time you told the same basic story. Now try to imagine that you have experienced an unspeakable trauma -- a family member being shot in front of you, watching your child fall from a cliff when you were just inches away from grabbing her before she fell, having seven men take turns shoving their penis and a bottle inside one of your body cavities. Do you think you would have the super-human capacity to be perfectly clear headed immediately afterward or shortly after? Would you be able to talk about the incident in exactly the same way every time? If you experience severe trauma like a human, you would likely go through several stages of recovery. These stages would likely include times when you were highly emotional, other times emotionally withdrawn, times when you were tired of thinking about it and just said 'it didn't happen,' and times when you were strong enough to put words to your experience. That is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is important. How Jackie described minor details of the incident -- the number of perpetrators, the exact status of the lead perpetrator with the fraternity -- is completely consistent with PTSD resulting from a rape. I have interviewed over 100 rape survivors, and written seven books on the subject. I can tell you with confidence that survivors talk about their experience very differently at different points in time. So if someone at first recalls five perpetrators and later recalls seven, it was likely just too painful for her to remember the other two when she began recounting the incident.

We should also learn from this incident that after a rape is reported, those closest to the survivor often turn on her. Published reports assert that Jackie's "close friends" have come to doubt her account. Does this mean the event in question didn't happen? No. Again, that her friends acknowledge that details have changed over time is exactly consistent with PTSD. Perhaps her friends have grown tired of the tidal wave of negative attention that UVA has received, and wish for the reputation of their alma mater to be restored. Or perhaps they simply have not been educated well by an administration that seems to just want to push rape under the rug, as some at UVA have even admitted was their approach in the past.

An alleged "close friend" of Jackie now reportedly says she was misled about what happened by her friend. Just as Thanksgiving break has come to a close, and this friend has no doubt has been peppered by questions from relatives about whether UVA is really such a horrible place, her loyalty to her school's reputation seems to outweigh her ability to empathize with, believe, and support a friend. We should all be highly critical of this change in disposition from initial support to turning on the one who undermines UVAs reputation.

Still others express shock that Jackie didn't immediately rush to the hospital or to the police. Recall that Jackie's "friends" were more concerned that Jackie's reputation would be 'shot' and perhaps their own chances of getting into a fraternity party or becoming a member would be ended if they took her to the hospital. Can anyone be realistically surprised that after experiencing gang rape, an 18 year old young woman would be swayed by friends who callously abandoned her best interests at a time when they should have supported her? Rape survivors frequently question their own judgment after a rape; they look to friends for direction, and in this case those friends told her to just brush it off. No wonder she tried to do so.

So there are indeed many lessons we can continue to learn from the report of a gang rape at UVA. Women who experience rape often describe it differently at different times. This doesn't make them a liar, it makes them human. People accused of felonies have every motivation to lie or to selectively tell the truth. Some fraternities and universities would rather focus on protecting their reputation than on helping human beings in their greatest time of need. And finally, we all need to take a critical eye to the denials of accused felons, work to support people who have experienced extreme trauma, and stand together against sexual violence.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.