Rolling Stone's rape disaster: How a botched process blamed the victim -- and provided ammo for disbelievers

Yes, the magazine has taken responsibility for its reporting failures. But here's why it's too little, too late

Published December 8, 2014 5:27AM (EST)

The fallout over Rolling Stone’s blockbuster piece on sexual assault at UVA is such a nightmare, I’m not even sure where to begin. On Friday, as I reported on the magazine’s partial retraction of the piece — which seemed to blame Jackie, the victim whose account of being gang raped is central to the story — I tried not to assume that people would immediately call Jackie a liar. When I sat down to write, that assumption seemed like a preemptive strike; by the time I finished my post, the trolls had already started taking shots.

Rolling Stone claims there were “discrepancies” in the story Jackie told reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who reportedly agreed not to contact Jackie’s alleged rapists at the young woman’s request. It has also been reported that Jackie asked Erdely not to feature her story in “A Rape on Campus,” a request the magazine should have abided — not simply because Jackie asked, but because Rolling Stone so clearly failed to vet the facts. The young woman’s story has been labeled a “hoax,” and the other problems raised in Erdely’s 9,000-word piece have fallen by the wayside. It’s exactly what the trolls would have wanted.

The magazine has since taken responsibility for its failure, amending managing editor Will Dana’s initial retraction to remove the blame it placed on Jackie’s shoulders. I have no doubt that, at the very least, Rolling Stone made these changes to ward off criticism for blaming victims; I hope it was also in an effort to stand with survivors. Still, it’s too little, too late, especially in a world where trolls troll faster than editors can backpedal. Certain bloggers have already begun to release information and photos of the woman believed to be Jackie. They have taken the “discrepancies” in her story to mean that she made the whole thing up. They are shaming her and calling her a liar.

The fact that Rolling Stone so thoughtlessly provided ammunition for disbelieving Jackie is only one part of the problem. Saying that the magazine’s trust in her was “misplaced” illustrates our conditioned reflex to lay blame with victims. But the immediate interpretation people have been so quick to make — that nothing in Jackie’s story could possibly be true — is worse. It is a testament to how eagerly we attempt to ignore the realities of rape and trauma, how viciously we hope to destroy survivors. It is also a sign that we might lack basic critical thinking skills.

The Washington Post has listed the numerous issues that have arisen in closer examination of Jackie’s story, and not a single one indicates that something horrific did not happen to this woman. One of Jackie's friends says the number of men involved in the alleged attack changed, increasing from five to seven. Another friend, who was with Jackie the night of Sept. 28, 2012, says she "did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken," as opposed to bloodied and bruised. One of the attackers Jackie identified did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, where she was reportedly raped, but rather to a different fraternity.

What we are left with are unpretty truths. Jackie says something happened, and so do her friends. On Monday, one of her former suite mates, Emily Clark, published an op-ed in UVA’s Cavalier Daily, affirming her belief that Jackie was sexually assaulted in the fall of 2012. Clark notes that the details of the attack remain unclear, but the larger picture — one of a woman grappling with devastating trauma — couldn’t be more stark:

I remember her alarm going off every morning. I always assumed she had gone to class and forgot to turn off her later alarms. Being the lazy freshman I was, I tended to roll over in bed and pay no mind to it, hoping somebody else would turn it off, and remind Jackie about it once she got back from class. If I had known Jackie wasn’t going to class, that she was curled up in bed without the will to turn off the alarm, things would have been much different. [...]

In December 2012, Jackie broke down. All of a sudden she was going home and none of us knew why. It was right before finals, and I couldn’t believe she was leaving. She was distraught, and only said she needed to go home. Her teachers had given her allowance to take her finals over break. At that point, we knew something big had happened. I didn’t know until this year with the publication of Rolling Stone’s article how bad that time was for her.

Sometime that year I remember her letting it slip to me that she had had a terrible experience at a party. I remember her telling me that multiple men had assaulted her at this party. She didn’t say anything more. It seemed that was all she’d allow herself to say.

The explanation for the hazy details of Jackie’s story is so obvious, so basic that I can’t believe I have to type it. Rape is traumatic. Trauma affects our memories in ways we often don’t foresee or understand. And it affects us all differently. Some survivors have every detail of an assault seared into their minds forever; others don’t. Trauma does not guarantee that the memory of five men forcibly violating one’s body won’t get blurred into a memory of seven.

Those discrepancies do matter, most of all when we seek justice. It matters that Jackie might not have been raped at the house where she says she was raped — or, rather, where she was told she was raped after the fact, because she could not remember it clearly herself. It matters that the man who allegedly brought her to the party where she was violated did not belong to the fraternity he was said to belong to. All of these missing details are roadblocks to justice, for the men who might be wrongly accused, but also for Jackie. They are hurdles for the other women who are discredited because they cannot recall perfectly every detail of their own violation — because they are not, to borrow from Roxane Gay, unassailable.

It seems that those who are quickest to dismiss Jackie’s story in its entirety are also those quickest to defend rape and violence as inherent flaws of human nature. Even if that were the case, it would still result in the same complex nightmare Rolling Stone’s reporting failures have precipitated. Human nature is messy. The realities of rape are messier still. We can — and should — expect survivors' accounts to be checked and double-checked and rounded out with different voices when they are reported to us in magazines. But we can never expect that the stories themselves will be clean or pretty. Until we stop expecting vicious horrors packaged nicely, we will remain that much farther from justice.

By Jenny Kutner

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Gender Media Criticism Men Rape Rolling Stone Sexual Assault The Right Uva Violence