Rolling Stone and reporting on rape

Do we want this Rolling Stone story about Jackie to be truth or fiction?

If true, it means a young woman was brutalized, dehumanized, and ignored by a systemic rape culture on college campuses, particularly inside fraternities. The rape also becomes a potential catalyst for change on the local, state, and national levels to stop rape on college campuses.

If it’s fiction, it means a woman was spared the violence and torture of rape. But it also means that those who discount rape culture, and those in power with little-to-no interest in stopping that culture, will be able to say: “You see? I was right! Rape isn’t an issue.”

Rebecca Traister sums this up writing in The New Republic:

The dismantling of Erdely’s story—both by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic error—would mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed, and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.

To put any wind in the sails of anti-feminists and rape apologists is never good. It stifles and muffles feminism and anti-rape efforts.

Here’s Caitlin Flanagan, who investigated deplorable behavior systemic in fraternities, in this good Slate article:

…if the story doesn’t check out, “it is going to cause so much trouble in the area of reforming fraternity sexual assault, I can’t even tell you.”

…Flanagan has recently been invited to speak to a large gathering of fraternity advisers about addressing fraternity rape. Inviting her, she says, is a “huge opening” in their thinking. “But if this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years.” (my emphasis).

I can’t speak for the anti-feminist agonistes that Traister mentioned (they’re douchebags who willfully blind themselves to how dreadful women are treated, and I’m not one of them), but for me, someone who puts a premium on reporting that’s true and done with the due diligence it requires, I’m disappointed with how the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, handled things, and how she ultimately brought on unnecessary criticism that’s covering the issue her article meant to air out.

There’s got to be some acknowledgement that Erdely reached out to the accused rapists for comment. Even if they offered “no comment” or refused to respond, you need to make that effort. You need to give them an opportunity to respond and you need to let us know you did. Not doing so undermines your credibility.

But then again, this is a story about rape. About people who are still out in public and who could potentially act against Jackie. Erderly had to tow a fine line, discussed in that same Slate piece:

[Erderly] said that she did not identify the men in the article “by Jackie’s request. She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on.” Erdely would not say, however, whether she knew who they were. “I can’t answer that,” she told the Post. “This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.”

Jackie’s choice to withhold identifies may not be the one you would have made (or the one you’d like to think you’d have made) but it’s unquestionably justifiable.

And yet it’s also problematic for Erderly:

Sara Surface, a good friend of Jackie’s and a member of One Less, a victim advocacy group at UVA, had the impression that Jackie’s reaction was “extreme” when Erdely pressed her—meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously. If that’s true, then Erdely was in a tough position. Push too hard and she might lose Jackie. But not pushing harder has created a whole new nightmare. (my emphasis)

If Jackie was so terrified about identifying the assailants (and I have no reason to doubt that) Erderly should have put that in the article. By not, Erderly has brought scrutiny to the article (and subsequently to Jackie’s integrity) which could have been avoided (probably not all of it, but at least some).

Now our attention turns from combating rape and rape culture to the ways and means of Erderly’s reportage. And what does that do?

Here’s Rebecca Traister again:

What we will all be allowed to happily forget is that there are plenty of real stories of rape: of violent rape, frat house rape, gang rape, date rape; that most rape accusers do not lie and that in fact it’s quite likely, statistically, that Jackie herself did not lie. But the most serious thing that we’ll be allowed to forget is the very point of Erdely’s story, whatever its strengths or flaws may be determined to be: The system does not work

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Rolling Stone and reporting on rape