The analysis

The unravelling of the UVA rape story is bad for journalism, not feminism

We should be anything but disappointed when stories of terrible crimes turn out to be false

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The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house is seen on the University of Virginia
Getty/Jay Paul

Police announced on Monday that a four-month investigation had yielded “no evidence” to substantiate the story, reported in Rolling Stone in November, that a University of Virginia student had been brutally gang-raped at a fraternity party in 2012. According to Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a UVA freshman named Jackie was lured upstairs at a fraternity and raped by seven of its members in some kind of satanic initiation rite. The police investigation–which included interviews with more than 70 students and witnesses, and with which Jackie declined to cooperate–found no men on campus matching Jackie’s descriptions of the perpetrators, and revealed that the fraternity in question didn’t host a party on the night Jackie claims she was attacked.

Erdely’s story began unravelling just days after it was published, but not before it had become an international sensation. It generated headlines in major media outlets around the world. University administrators, legal authorities and elected officials all reacted with appropriate levels of horror. UVA president Teresa Sullivan immediately introduced new initiatives to fight sexual assault and shut down all Greek life on campus. Local police launched the investigation they’ve only just suspended.

As the cracks in the story began to emerge–Why hadn’t Erdely talked to the men Jackie accused? Why did she base a 9,000-word story almost entirely on one source? Why did many of Jackie’s friends, when questioned by journalists from other publications, seem skeptical of her account?–most mainstream journalists gave Jackie the benefit of the doubt as long as it remained possible, and many jumped on those who questioned her. When blogger Richard Bradley questioned the thoroughness of Erdely’s reporting, he was quickly denounced by Jezebel as an “idiot.” Feminists on Twitter expressed their support of Jackie in spite of the inconsistencies in her story, making the hashtag “#IStandWithJackie” go viral.

As Jackie’s story comes to seem less and less plausible, we should be more and more happy and relieved: that Jackie probably was not beaten, raped and verbally abused by seven men for three hours; that ritual gang rape is probably not a regular event at the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.

But many feminists seem disappointed instead.

They’re worried that if one rape allegation turns out to be false, all other future rape claims will be viewed with greater suspicion. “Rolling Stone just wrecked an incredible year of progress for rape victims,” wrote Arielle Duhaime-Ross at the Verge, in December. At BuzzFeed, Annie Clark argued that the unravelling of Jackie’s story “could be read as a setback for an entire movement.” Other false rape allegations have been met with similar reactions. When Joanie Faircloth recanted her claim that she’d been raped by musician Conor Oberst, a writer at Bustle called the news “crushingly disappointing.”

That’s perverse. On a human level, we should be anything but disappointed when stories of terrible crimes turn out to be false. Understandably, people are annoyed at the waste of time and resources, but we should still be grateful that someone wasn’t raped.

And the fear that individual cases will discredit all victims is also misguided. The Duke lacrosse scandal didn’t stop us from believing Faircloth. Faircloth’s falsehood didn’t stop us from believing Jackie. If anything, the UVA case shows how sympathetic we are to victims of sexual assault.

Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who’s been carrying a mattress around campus all year to draw attention to her alleged assault, is generally seen as a hero. She appeared on the cover of New York magazine and attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. When the UVA story first came to light, everyone involved—from university administrators to fraternity members–reacted with outrage. We trusted Jackie for as long as we could, and we will continue to trust others who come forward. One incident isn’t going to change the climate.

This whole episode is a disaster for Rolling Stone. It’s terrible, and perhaps career-ending, for Erdely and her fact-checker. It could even be argued that it’s bad for journalism as a whole. But it isn’t bad for feminism.

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