Sobering stats

The bungled Rolling Stone rape article doesn’t change the fact that sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in the US

When someone is raped in this country, the rapist gets away with it more than 97 percent of the time

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Rolling Stone 'A Rape on Campus' story
Rolling Stone

“A Rape on Campus,” published in Rolling Stone last November, exposed a horrifying gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. A couple of weeks after the article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely appeared online, however, the Washington Post ran a piece by T. Rees Shapiro that raised serious doubts about its veracity. And now an investigation by Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has confirmed that few, if any, of the details reported by Erdely about the alleged rape are true.

Rolling Stone has retracted the article. The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where the female student was said to have been brutalized by seven men, announced that it intends to pursue “all available legal action” against the magazine. “Jackie,” the alleged victim who was Erdely’s primary source, has been thoroughly discredited.

But according to Coll, one of America’s most respected journalists, the Rolling Stone debacle should not be blamed on Jackie. “It was a product of failed methodology,” he explained at a press conference on April 6, describing a cascade of astonishing blunders by Erdely and her editors. Coll pronounced that he and his co-investigators “disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault.”

There is no question that responsibility for the article’s epic failure ultimately belongs to Erdely and Rolling Stone. Make no mistake, however: Women sometimes lie about being raped. According to the most reliable peer-reviewed research, between two percent and 10 percent of rape reports are bogus.

As one ponders this discomfiting information, though, it’s important to keep in mind what the flip side of these numbers reveal: Between 90 percent and 98 percent of rape allegations are true.

Rape, moreover, is this country’s most underreported serious crime by a wide margin. Rigorous studies consistently indicate that at least 80 percent of rapes are never disclosed to law enforcement agencies or other authorities. Analysis published in 2012 by Kimberly Lonsway, director of research at End Violence Against Women International, and Joanne Archambault, formerly a police sergeant in charge of the San Diego Sex Crimes Unit, suggests that no more than five percent to 20 percent of rapes are reported to the police; only 0.4 percent to 5.4 percent of rapes are ever prosecuted; and just 0.2 percent to 2.8 percent of forcible rapes culminate in a conviction that includes any jail time for the assailant. When someone is raped in this country, in other words, the rapist gets away with it more than 97 percent of the time.

Being falsely accused of sexual assault can be ruinous. Police, prosecutors, university officials, and journalists need to make every effort to identify specious rape reports and exonerate the falsely accused, because to be labeled a rapist carries a stigma that is almost impossible to shed. But we need to be equally vigilant about not letting those who are guilty of rape escape accountability, because doing so unjustly stigmatizes their accusers as liars, compounding the trauma of being raped.

It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who isn’t believed can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is falsely accused of rape. And the number of genuine victims who are assumed to be lying is vastly greater than the number of men who are falsely accused, contrary to the impression created by the uproar over the Rolling Stone train wreck.

As University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan noted on April 5, “Rolling Stone’s story did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals … Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored … Sexual violence is a serious issue for our society, and it requires the focus and attention of all in our communities.”

Jon Krakauer’s book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” will be released on April 21. Preorder it hereKrakauer is appearing with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at the 2015 Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 24.  Tickets to the Summit can be purchased here.

Related:

Professors who conducted investigation of botched Rolling Stone rape story speak out

Should the managing editor and the reporter involved in the retracted Rolling Stone story be fired?

Rolling Stone shame: Mag retracts UVA rape story, apologizes for ‘journalistic failure’

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

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