Rolling Stone's UVA disaster just got a whole lot worse

Bizarre new details are the most damning yet — but it's essential not to overgeneralize their importance

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published December 11, 2014 6:20PM (EST)

Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” story continues to unravel this week.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely's bombshell report, first published in November, centered on the brutal gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house of a woman identified as "Jackie." However, the veracity of Erdely's reporting has come under significant scrutiny of late, as a growing number of factual discrepancies have emerged in Jackie's accounting of events.

In the latest bizarre twist, reported on Wednesday by the Washington Post, three friends of Jackie who were depicted in the Rolling Stone report say that her story now differs in substantial ways from what she had told them immediately after the alleged incident. For example, in their telling, Jackie informed them she was assaulted in a fraternity house by five men, not seven as she would later state, and that the assailants forced her to perform oral sex, which differs from the version Erdely wrote based on Jackie’s subsequent account.

These friends also maintain that they were not the callous bystanders Erdely’s story painted them to be; far from debating the “social price” of reporting Jackie’s rape, as Erdely reported, they tell the Post that they urged Jackie to report the crime to the police, and comforted her to the best of their abilities. All three tell CBS News that they were never contacted by the magazine for comment, despite Erdely writing in her story that the friend identified as Randall, “citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.”

Most shocking, perhaps: Jackie's friends also detail several bizarre inconsistencies in her relationship with a man she would go on to identify as one of her assailants. According to the three, Jackie told them she had been brought to the fraternity house by her date that evening, an upperclassman they had never met. The details they reveal to the Post strongly suggest that Jackie might have fabricated this upperclassman. Jackie had previously told the three about a good-looking junior in her chemistry class who wanted to go out with her, but when they tried to find out more about him, they discovered he didn’t exist in UVA databases and couldn’t be found on social media. Here's the Post's account of what they learned:

Intrigued, Jackie’s friends got his phone number from her and began exchanging text messages with the mysterious upperclassman. He then raved to them about “this super smart hot” freshman who shared his love of the band Coheed and Cambria, according to the texts, which were provided to The Post.

“I really like this girl,” the chemistry student wrote in one message.

Some of the messages included photographs of a man with a sculpted jaw line and ocean-blue eyes.

In the text messages, the student wrote that he was jealous that another student had apparently won Jackie’s attention.

“Get this she said she likes some other 1st year guy who dosnt like her and turned her down but she wont date me cause she likes him,” the chemistry student wrote. “She cant turn my down fro some nerd 1st yr. she said this kid is smart and funny and worth it.”

The photos in the texts apparently belong to a high school classmate of Jackie’s who told the Post they weren’t friends, and also that he never attended UVA, is not a member of a fraternity, hasn’t been to Charlottesville, where UVA is located, in six years and was in another state participating in an athletic event on the weekend in question. His photos were apparently sourced from social media sites without his knowledge.

Communication with the mysterious upperclassman didn’t stop after that night, according to the Post:

After the alleged attack, the chemistry student who Jackie said had taken her on the date wrote an e-mail to Randall, passing along praise that Jackie apparently had for him.

Randall said it is apparent to him that he is the “first year” student that the chemistry upperclassman described in text messages, since he had rebuffed Jackie’s advances.

What goes conspicuously unstated in the Post report is the conclusion that many readers will understandably jump to after reading these details: That Jackie created a fake love interest for herself, with his own email account, phone number and swiped photos, who she later went on to accuse of rape. And if Jackie did indeed make him up — although it bears repeating that the Post never explicitly stakes that position itself — it adds yet another bizarre layer of opacity to an already less-than-transparent story.

But what the new details reveal is also a story that is impossible to generalize. This isn’t a tired old fable of petty social vengeance or a guilt-fueled backtrack, the kind that get trotted out to discredit the stories of rape victims every day. And so it makes a poor rebuttal against stories of sexual assault in general. The chance that similar scenarios will begin to play out is slim. A story with this many obvious and unexplained twists aligning with such staggeringly poor editorial oversight at a major media outlet is remarkable precisely because it's an aberration.

This complex web of conflicting stories could forever obscure what actually happened that September weekend in 2012. However, it is essential not to overstate its implications. Despite the inconsistencies, even Randall says that on the night in question, regardless of how the details of Jackie's evening don’t line up, he believes something terrible happened to her: “She had very clearly just experienced a horrific trauma,” Randall told the Post. “I had never seen anybody acting like she was on that night before, and I really hope I never have to again ... If she was acting on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, then she deserves an Oscar.”

Moreover, even as the Rolling Stone report unravels, positive steps continue to be taken at UVA to bolster prevention efforts and support for sexual assault victims. Students at the university have committed to fighting sexual assault, because they recognize a campus culture that doesn’t go nearly far enough to support and empower its female students. And the school itself has pledged a zero-tolerance policy toward rape and sexual assault, a move that could make sexual assault at least as serious an offense at UVA as cheating — a violation of the honor code that has resulted in student expulsions, while sexual assault never has.

The outlandish tale at the heart of Erdely’s poorly vetted story does a disservice to Rolling Stone’s larger point about rape and assault on college campuses. It would be a mistake to allow the magazine’s poor handling of Jackie’s story to completely distract from the issues that it highlighted for many readers — that sexual assault is often handled poorly by university officials ill-equipped to adjudicate violent crimes; that sexual assault, on-campus and off, is not a rare or inconsequential crime; and that cultural pressures women face to not report these crimes are harmful and need to be dismantled. One reporter allowing the sensational power of one individual’s story to cloud her professional judgment shouldn’t close this larger and more important conversation.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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