Rolling Stone is retreating on its defense of last month's blockbuster exposé on sexual assault at the University of Virginia, which has been criticized in recent weeks for the author's failure to contact several men accused of gang raping a woman identified as Jackie. On Friday, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana issued a statement in response to the fraternity where Jackie claims she was raped, which now argues that there are major discrepancies in the woman's story:
In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
Jackie's account of being brutally raped by seven men during her freshman year is the centerpiece of Sabrina Rubin Erdely's investigation of UVA's purported indifference to sexual assault reports. It is flanked by additional accounts from rape survivors who, like Jackie, claim they experienced devastating abuses that the school has largely failed to address. All of those stories, which correspond with so many other stories of sexual assault on college campuses, with so many other stories of universities that continue to look the other way, might now be in doubt.
This is not just because of the discrepancies in Jackie's account. It is not just because Rolling Stone failed to investigate her allegations better or to reach out to the accused, though the magazine no doubt should have done both of those things. The trust the UVA survivors and others might have gained through Erdely's report might now be lost because we will choose to disbelieve them as a result of the magazine's failures.
Rolling Stone claims it chose not to pursue interviews with Jackie's alleged attackers in order to show trust for a victim of sexual assault. But it is entirely possible to believe a victim's story while doing the work required of publishing that story as a work of investigative reporting -- which means attempting to corroborate it, for the sake of the accused, the accuser, other victims and the magazine itself. Jackie's story needed to be corroborated so we could have the elevated discussion we need to have about sexual assault on college campuses, a conversation that started to arise because of Erdely's article. That conversation has already begun to stall in the wake of Rolling Stone's failure to do what it should have done, but the magazine's failures are merely an excuse.
New evidence has, indeed, indicated that there are discrepancies in Jackie's story; the Washington Post has a detailed account of the issues her friends and fellow UVA survivor advocates have noticed, as well as points from the planned rebuttal from the fraternity where Jackie claims she was raped. But the problems with Jackie's story do not give us reason to discredit the accounts of other survivors, who already fear that we will do exactly what we're inclined to do: to question rape victims, to assume they are lying, to shake our heads at the suggestion nice young men, or any human, could be capable of such grotesquely violent acts.
“One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future,” Alex Pinkleton, a friend of Jackie's and a rape survivor, told the Washington Post. “However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”
The percentage of falsely reported rapes is minuscule, a fact we already work to ignore. If you have any doubt that people will use Jackie's now-questionable credibility as an excuse for continuing to suggest that women lie about rape, it's already happening. But the damage was done long before Rolling Stone published "A Rape on Campus." It's damage we'll continue to do.