"A Rape on Campus." Then most of America started a nation-wide discussion about rape. And then most of America promptly forgot about Jackie as soon as Rolling Stone announced that she wasn't a credible source.
For those of you who haven't been following the UVA rape, journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely tells the story of a student at the University of Virginia who was brutally gang-raped in the first few weeks of her freshman year, only to be silenced and scoffed at by friends and faculty. Erdely depicts a school environment that embodies rape culture--a term that many of us toss around ambiguously but never really think about its meaning--and informs the reader that college rapists very rarely suffer any consequences, let alone the life imprisonment to which they would be subject if the cases were tried in court.
Erdely follows Jackie as she tells the Dean/Head of the Sexual Misconduct Board, Nicole Eramo, about the rape. The entirely unsympathetic Eramo informs Jackie that she has two choices: file a complaint with the Sexual Misconduct Board or informally confront her attackers in a counseling-style setting. But, as Erdely emphasizes, the decision is left entirely up to Jackie. This lack of advice has resulted in the choice that most victims end up making: doing nothing.
The article was widely shared and widely discussed. And, as with any controversial news piece, it was also widely fact-checked. Magazines like Slate and newspapers like The Washington Post have released responses to Erdely's article, asking why she hadn't spoken to any witnesses besides Jackie, including pivotal characters such as her friends (who the original article claimed decided not to take the bloody, wounded woman to a hospital for fear of ruining their own reputations) and her rapists. Rolling Stone responded by saying that Jackie had requested that no one be contacted, and they respected her request. Then, as more and more information came out that pointed to falsities in Jackie's account, Rolling Stone issued an apology (in name only) in which they told the public that they had misplaced their trust in Jackie and there was misinformation in the article.
While I believe that Rolling Stone acted repulsively by blaming a rape victim instead of accepting responsibility for publishing a poorly researched article, this isn't what disturbs me most about the UVA rape coverage. What I see as far more troubling is that once Rolling Stone confirmed that the article wasn't entirely credible, the entire nation-wide discussion about rape promptly spluttered and died.
Now we've forgotten, once again, that rape is an overwhelming issue in our society. We've decided to ignore the one in five women we know who has been sexually assaulted. Clearly, we just don't care anymore, now that the one well-publicized rape turned out to be fabricated. WE STILL NEED TO HAVE THIS DISCUSSION. This woman's experience may be exaggerated to the point of falsity, but--and this isn't so widely known--she was still raped. She had a horrifyingly traumatic experience. And there is no way that we can just accept it as a part of life. Rape is an abomination, no matter to whom it happens--and it happens far too often.
I'm afraid that the article has ultimately caused more harm than good by starting people talking about sexual assault and then abruptly ending the conversation. One issue is that now that we've spoken about rape a bit, people will believe that we've done enough and that we can stop. (We can't.) Another one of my worries is that now it will become a common belief that all rape stories are lies and that we can't believe any of them. And perhaps my biggest fear is that the article has given victim-blamers ammunition for their next string of propaganda.
As a young woman, I am in the group most likely to be raped. My mother has taught me all about roofies and not leaving my drink unattended (when I'm old enough to drink, that is); I have picked up social cues about what not to wear so that I don't get catcalled; I have gotten catcalled anyway. I shouldn't have to learn this. When I think about college, I should be looking forward to studying subjects specific to my passions and interests, meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, and discovering my independence.
I shouldn't be terrified about getting raped.
And since I am, it pains me that America isn't.