Shaming the Victim: The Public Backlash against Jackie and How It Reinforces Rape Culture

In this post, Lela Spielberg discusses the media’s coverage of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and its complicity in American rape culture.  Lela is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and has spent time as an elementary school teacher, education policy analyst, and director at an education nonprofit.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” I’m sure most of you are by now familiar with this story and its central protagonist, “Jackie.” (If not, you should read it). The lack of urgency and transparency with which UVA and other elite universities across the country have chosen to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape on their campuses deserves plenty of comment, but my post is not about this story.

Instead, my post is about the controversy that followed Erdely’s story, and the overwhelmingly negative and unkind reactions towards Jackie from the media and the general public. Allow me to briefly summarize:

Following the release of the story, T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post chose to follow up on Rolling Stone’s story, and when he did, he found some inconsistencies in Jackie’s narrative. Several other, less reputable news outlets – including The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Fox News – chose to follow suit. A mere week after the story was published, several holes had been poked in the Rolling Stone article. Every detail of the story and rape was questioned: Why were the alleged perpetrators of the rape not interviewed? Were there five men present at the rape, or seven? Did Jackie have to have vaginal sex with them, or was she “just” forced to perform oral sex?

None of these inconsistencies refute the fact that Jackie was indeed sexually assaulted at UVA, or that UVA was incredibly cagey in its handling of the assault and the story. Yet the ensuing public backlash was enough for Rolling Stone to issue a statement apologizing for the original article and for the media to continue, for almost a month now, to further discredit Jackie, Erdely, and, to some extent, the prevalence of rape on college campuses. These reactions are not surprising to me. Rather, they are symptomatic of a larger problem. The world we live in is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of its most privileged members – in most cases, wealthy, white men – and yet so blithely unaware of the privilege it grants some people and not others that those who challenge this privilege are vilified, impugned, and doubted.

I will not waste my time going tit for tat with The Washington Post and Rolling Stone on the facts of Jackie’s story. I understand that good journalism is about facts, and I regret that Rolling Stone did not do a perfect job checking them. But in a story involving trauma, there will likely be inconsistencies in first-person accounts of events. And those stories still deserve to be told.

What Jackie described to Erdely was a severely traumatic experience. It is a well-documented fact that when people experience an incredibly stressful event (and being forced to perform oral sex, being gang raped by several men, and/or having a beer bottle inserted in your vagina all definitely qualify as stressful), their memories of the event are often incomplete and/or altered. Moreover, most people tend to forget details as time passes. Think about it: if I interviewed you about a sexual experience, even a pleasant one, that happened two years ago, would you be able to tell me everything? Where did your partner work at the time? How long was the foreplay? How long did the sex last? What did you say to your friends afterwards?

(If you think you can recall these details, please email me so we can set up an interview. Then I’ll interview every single person tangentially involved, ask to go through your emails and texts, and print any inconsistencies in your story on the front page of The Washington Post.)

Indeed, that’s why self-doubt and guilt are two feelings that sexual assault survivors often experience. They wake up in disbelief: Did this really happen? Will I remember enough to tell the police? A judge? A jury? What if I forget a detail and I ruin my life, or his? In too many instances, this self-doubt prevents sexual assault victims from confronting their attackers or reporting the crime, which reinforces the idea in perpetrators’ heads that this kind of behavior is acceptable, and creates a new cycle of attacks and secret shame.

When women get the courage to tell the story of their sexual assault, they must brace themselves for a level of scrutiny and character assassination that not even the most saintly citizen could withstand. In Jackie’s case, the media has been quick to impeach her character, and has recently gone so far as to suggest she was obsessive and boy crazy. Behold just a few articles that come up when I perform a basic Google search on Jackie:

Defaming and questioning a woman’s character is an all too common reaction when a woman reports a rape. Everyone from acquaintances to law enforcement officials will ask tacit questions about what she did to deserve it: Was she wearing something revealing? Did she go upstairs willingly? Did she kiss him at the party? Did she drink anything? Did she send a suggestive text message? Not only will they raise doubts about the incident in question, but they will also call into question her general character: Does she sleep around? Does she drink a lot? Does she chase guys? Has she ever sent a naughty picture?

Here’s the deal, folks: even if the answer to every single hypothetical question posed above was, “yes,” it isn’t any less possible that the woman was raped, and it doesn’t make the rape any less of a crime and abomination. Being forced to have sex without consent is a horrific abuse. It is an assault on one’s sense of safety, on one’s physical body, and on one’s mind. Nobody deserves that, no matter who she is and what she did in the minutes before it happened. But yet, in Jackie’s case and the case of so many others, we spend way too much time looking for evidence that the behavior of the attackers was somewhat justified.

It’s no wonder that Jackie waited so long to tell her story. After all, look at what she had to look forward to: reporters harassing her and her family, internet trolls searching relentlessly for her identity, even her alleged “friends” questioning her integrity to reporters.

Zerlina Maxwell wrote an excellent piece for The Washington Post about the high cost of not believing rape survivors. She writes, “The cost of disbelieving women…signals that…women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.”

I want Jackie, and the many women who have been or unfortunately one day will be in a similar position, to know they aren’t disposable. Talking about a sexual assault takes courage. It means replaying the details from an incredibly painful thing you are trying to forget. It means confronting your attacker, at the very least in your own mind, and sometimes in person, even though the thought and sight of him makes you sick. It means listening to the patronizing questions about what you did wrong, and it means bracing yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made, every possible error in judgment you’ve ever had, to be analyzed by people who don’t even know you.

After a story about rape makes national news, it’s a shame that the people on trial the most are the victim and those who tried to help her. But this doesn’t have to be our reality. Instead of focusing on discrediting the victim, let’s focus on her alleged attackers. Why did they do what they did? Have they done it to anyone else? What messages have they gotten from their families, their friends, from their university, and their society about the rightness and wrongness of what happened?

There is a quote I like, by a favorite writer of my father’s, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Regardless of the particular details of what happened to Jackie, and the details surrounding any assault on someone’s body, spirit, and safety, we should not look for reasons to let those who committed these crimes, or ourselves, off the hook.

17 Comments

Filed under Gender Issues

17 responses to “Shaming the Victim: The Public Backlash against Jackie and How It Reinforces Rape Culture

  1. Alleged victim and victim are not the same thing.

  2. WT

    “Why were the alleged perpetrators of the rape not interviewed? Were there five men present at the rape, or seven? Did Jackie have to have vaginal sex with them, or was she “just” forced to perform oral sex?”

    I would agree with you up to this point — but the stunning revelations about “Haven Monahan” (the person who supposedly raped Jackie) makes it clear that the real question is, “How could anything at all have happened to Jackie, where her supposed date that night didn’t even exist but was part of an elaborate hoax that was apparently invented to win Ryan’s sympathy?”

    Ultimately, I have to side with Freddie DeBoer, who makes a compelling case (to me) that it will ultimately damage actual rape victims if their putative advocates stake their credibility on defending a poor young woman who seems to be desperately mentally ill but whose story turns out at many junctures to have been a complete fiction. theweek.com/article/index/273514/what-progressives-dont-want-to-talk-about-in-the-rolling-stone-scandal

  3. “None of these inconsistencies refute the fact that Jackie was indeed sexually assaulted at UVA”

    Actually it does.

    This article is substantially off the mark. We don’t quite know yet, but the most likely scenario is that Jackie was NOT sexually assaulted that night. Major, undisputed fabrication has been documented and it has nothing to do with the normal confusion of minor details.

    Erdely’s article is clear that Jackie claimed to remember all of this in great detail. In addition the Haven Monahan story demonstrates a history of fabrication and deception. It’s all very sad.

    The feminist mantra or a prolific college rape culture is very much in question.

  4. The responses to this piece (both here and on Twitter) prove its point.

    None of the follow-up reporting on this story has uncovered “undisputed” facts; instead, it has focused on rebuttals from the people accused of behaving poorly: members of the fraternity, UVA administrators, and “friends” of the victim (I use quotes around “friends,” as I’m sure Lela did, because real friends of someone who has experienced trauma don’t talk to reporters about that person’s crushes and make that person’s text messages public without her consent). On the one hand, there’s Jackie’s story, reported by Erdely. On the other hand, there are alternative interpretations of what really happened, based on the rebuttals and circumstantial evidence provided by the accused.

    Our sense of ethics defines our approach to this story. More specifically, our attention to and understanding of the veil of ignorance (see 34justice.com/2014/09/19/the-34justice-political-tool-ethics-truth-and-a-case-study-of-michael-brown-and-ferguson/) will determine whether we adopt a privilege-defending or power-balancing perspective.

    We have three basic options:

    1) Privilege-defending option: We can view a woman’s account of events with lots of skepticism when she reports a sexual assault, and subsequent denials from accused parties with less skepticism. This perspective, in addition to being unethical, also contradicts logic and evidence, as it’s well-established fact both that rapes are vastly underreported and that unsubstantiated accusations are rare.

    2) Somewhat less privilege-defending option: We can view reports of a rape and subsequent denials by others with equal skepticism. This perspective is akin to calling the story a “he said, she said” affair and concluding that we don’t really know anything.

    While this perspective might appear fair at first glance, it certainly isn’t in this case. There is no criminal trial here – other than the more intense scrutiny being applied to fraternity party culture and the way colleges deal with rape allegations, this story hasn’t threatened anyone’s safety or freedom. Jackie and Erdely did not name Jackie’s rapists. Yes, they have forced a lot of people to confront the culture of privilege from which they benefit, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the consequences of skepticism towards Jackie’s account – reinforcing rape culture in the way Lela describes – are much greater than the consequences of not believing the follow-up reports. The situation would be a little different if we were talking about a criminal trial with defendants who might end up in prison, yet even then, this perspective would make it extremely difficult to hold rapists accountable.

    3) Power-balancing option: Our most ethical option is to assume that a woman is telling the truth when she reports a rape, and to view denials from accused parties with skepticism. Again, this perspective is also evidence-based, as it acknowledges that the vast majority of rape accusations are founded. It also makes intuitive sense. For the reasons Lela described, women reporting rapes have few if any incentives to lie; our victim-blaming culture actually gives them incentives not to come forward. That doesn’t mean that false accusations never happen, but especially in cases in which there is no criminal trial, our default assumption should be to believe the original report.

    Journalists must still fact-check their stories – ethical considerations don’t absolve them of that responsibility. But it’s also clear that, in the case of Jackie’s story, Lela’s perspective is no less evidence-based and much more ethical than T. Rees Shapiro’s.

    • WT

      “real friends of someone who has experienced trauma don’t talk to reporters about that person’s crushes and make that person’s text messages public without her consent)”

      1. There is no reason left to think that Jackie ever experienced any sexual assault or trauma. The guy (“Haven Monahan”) who supposedly was her date that night, and who supposedly orchestrated an assault/rape, did not ever exist! A guy who didn’t exist could not have assaulted Jackie.

      2. Real friends don’t invent fictional characters in order to fool a classmate, and then after inventing a story of sexual assault by that fictional character, smear that classmate in a national magazine as a “hookup queen” who thought that being raped by “hot Psi Phi guys” should have been fun.

      3. Given the long history of false sexual accusations being used to railroad young black men, putative progressives should be very wary of the notion that any such accusations are always to be believed. Witness the Hofstra case from a few years ago, where a college girl had completely consensual sex with several young black guys, and then pretended it was rape because she was embarrassed to admit that it was consensual. Luckily for the guys, one of them had videotaped the encounter, and her malicious accusation was disproven before they spent decades in jail (where, ironically, they would have faced a far higher chance of being raped than women do).

    • WT

      ” women reporting rapes have few if any incentives to lie; our victim-blaming culture actually gives them incentives not to come forward. ”

      An ironic effect, however, is that this culture probably makes the proportion of false claims higher than it would otherwise be. Real victims are traumatized and therefore are more deterred by those incentives. But women who are mentally ill (e.g., Jackie), or who are seeking revenge (e.g., http://www.wfmz.com/news/news-regional-berks/Local/reading-police-woman-makes-false-rape-claim-to-get-revenge-on-exboyfriend/27791550), or who are seeking advantage in a custody or other domestic dispute, or who are trying to avoid admitting that an encounter was consensual, are NOT traumatized by any actual rape. So they are more willing to come forward with accusations, under the belief that their mere word is enough to at least get them an advantage.

      I totally understand and sympathize with the wish to protect rape victims at all costs. But women are human beings too — the class of “women” does not consist of 100% angels who would never dissemble or lie or be mentally ill or harm anyone. So the world is a bit more complicated than “innocent women who never do wrong” versus “evil men who always hurt women.”

      • The point of what I wrote above is that comments like this one demonstrate a greater readiness to believe follow-up denials of rape than the original report. This dynamic is why, for example, it took so long for people to find out about Bill Cosby (see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/29/arts/cosby-teams-strategy-hush-accusers-insult-them-blame-the-media.html).

        As I mentioned in my response to another commentator below, I agree that evidence is important, especially in a criminal trial. I also agree that the world isn’t composed only of “women who never do wrong” and “men who always hurt women.” But it’s imperative that we reflect on power dynamics, privilege, and our assumptions when we react to and interpret the stories we hear. If you’re more skeptical of Jackie than her “friends,” you probably aren’t doing that.

        • But Ben, the follow-ups aren’t “denials”, they are complete debunkings of a journalistic fiction. Jackie herself is now on record as distancing herself from Erdely’s account.

          Your aim of defending victims is one I support but this false story is not where you should be taking your stand.

      • WT

        I believed the Rolling Stone story at first; and even when it started falling apart, I still believed that Jackie had been assaulted that night (but simply had trouble remembering the details due to the trauma).

        When I stopped believing it was when it turned out that:

        1) Prior to the alleged assault, when there had obviously been no trauma, Jackie claimed to have a suitor (Haven Monahan). But there was no such person, and his email and phone numbers were fake. Moreover, this Haven’s only interest was in sending text messages that were about how much Jackie preferred to be with Ryan Duffin. Then, when Haven sent a photo purporting to be of himself, it was of a high school classmate of Jackie’s who had nothing to do with any of this. So this was all an elaborate ploy by Jackie to win the attention or jealousy of Ryan.

        2) Jackie’s alleged assault could not have happened, given that her attacker did not even exist.

        3) Several days after the alleged assault, Haven Monahan sent another email to Ryan Duffin, forwarding an email written by Jackie about how much she loved Ryan. (See hotair.com/archives/2014/12/18/revealed-the-e-mail-that-jackies-alleged-rapist-sent-to-her-friends-after-the-attack/ ). This is the icing on the cake — if Haven or anyone going by that name had existed and had just assaulted Jackie the week before, the last thing Jackie would be doing is sending him an email about her love for Ryan and expecting him to forward it to Ryan, as if he were a matchmaker.

        So there’s no basis for saying that I have a greater readiness to believe denials of rape — this isn’t a typical situation where a woman says “rape” and a man says “not rape” — here, the alleged rapist NEVER EXISTED. I believed Jackie up to the point where it became clear that she is a delusional liar who invented the whole story in a sick bid for sympathy from a guy who had jilted her.

        3)

        • I think we’ve reached the end of productive conversation – you aren’t citing undisputed facts, but information reported from a different source and the conclusions you’ve drawn about the veracity of that source. Your closing sentence especially reinforces my points, I believe.

          I’m happy to leave things here for now and let readers evaluate our respective arguments on their own.

          • WT

            It is an undisputed fact that “Haven Monahan” never existed, either at UVA or anywhere else in the U.S. It is an undisputed fact (because the Washington Post actually did the legwork of reporting here) that this “Haven Monahan” pretended to send a pic of himself, whereas it was actually a high school classmate of Jackie’s who had nothing to do with UVA. It is an undisputed fact that several days after the assault by a non-existent person, “Haven Monahan” sent Ryan Duffin an email forwarded from Jackie (this email can be seen online).

            If you have a better explanation for why a non-existent person would have been trying to play matchmaker between Jackie and a guy who had jilted her, bring it forth.

          • WT

            Do you still believe this woman’s story too? dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2348532/The-woman-accused-stranger-Facebook-rape–ruined-victims-life.html

  5. Crew

    Yep and Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, and building 7 was a controlled demolition. The conspiracy articles like those and this article are always long on conjecture and short on any facts. But just because Haven Monahan isn’t real, doesn’t mean we can’t prosecute him. Lets do this!!!!!

    Also we really need to stop these death row innocence projects. I’m so sick of those people pushing murder culture. It’s very disrespectful to victims to think any of those animals are innocent.

  6. Robert Wake

    Ben:

    Your response is impassioned and fraught with drivel.

    Your statement that none of the follow up reporting has uncovered “undisputed” facts is patently absurd. It is an undisputed fact that Erdely did not interview the three “friends.” uncovered by Shapiro. In addition, Erdely’s description of one of the friends as a “self-professed hook-up queen” misleads the reader into the false beliefe Erdely interviewed to the
    “quoted” person.Your statement about the “friends” is untrue. They did not share Jackie’s private text messages. They shared the text messages from Haven Montana. The follow up reporting discovered the name of the alleged perpetrator of the crime which Erdely did not report. In addition, Haven Montana did not attend the University of Virginia. I will concede that his existence is a disputed fact; which is problematic for an investigation of a crime. UVa and her friends did not perpetrate the assualt. They are collateral (and inconsequential according to you) damage to Erdely’s reckless behavior. The very heart of the matter, who perpetrated this crime?

    The heart of your argument seems to be:

    “That doesn’t mean that false accusations never happen, but especially in cases in which there is no criminal trial, our default assumption should be to believe the original report.” Implied in your statement, in some criminal cases, our default should be to believe the victim; discarding our criminal justice systems presumption of innocence. I hope that I never live to see that day.

    At the top of this page is Ghandi who stated “Truth never damages a cause that is just”. Sexual assault is a horrific violation that can not be defended. The pursuit of social justice for victims of sexual assault does not require suspending a search for truth. Your discomfort with accommodating truth in pursuit of a just cause undermines your goal.

    • You’ve misinterpreted the application of my argument in a criminal setting, and the argument in general, I believe. This piece is about perspective, focus, and approach, and the specific things you chose to cite further illustrate my point. But I agree that evidence is important, especially in the case of a trial, and neither my sister nor I have argued otherwise.

      Other than that, I’m happy to leave it here. I think the arguments speak for themselves.

  7. Pat

    When rapr culture prevails, women are not objectified, they are reduced to object, and tools men use for advtage in the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and fame. Hence, trafficking is endowed and fueled. The same occurs with children, with feeble members of society, with disabled, and with gays. When men control access to what they see as productive resources, they do not want to give that us, and many forces in society work to hide the scheme, including money laundering….increasing the financial fraud prevalent in society. Eventually, the model engenders the same tactics against other men who are not exempt from the mechanics of rape culture including hiring of low wage labor, if they can, to secure the weath without laws, regulation, or accountability. Eventually lawsuits begin where moneys are shuffled between the wealthy and attorneys. Bank bailout is the final injustice in this exploitive behavior, and Congress becomes complicit with favoring the wealthy. Citizens United distributes the privilege.

    Wonder where Trump’s 3500 lawsuit comes from? He has already learned the secrets of the rape culture, including of men whom he shortchanges, then intimidates leaving them helpless. Rape culture and its tangible benefits are not what America needs as predatory culture, whether it includes capitalism (and excuses for it, upheld by courts), or not.

    Men are naive to believe sexual banter, and sexual assault are victimless crimes. The victim is America, and the next victim of these unjust tactics. There is another one born every minute. It is the cult of the lying salesman and why Consumer Trade Laws were created. No penalty for violation of illegal, unfair, defective, dangerous goods, and society goes another step into the destruction of a just society, into exploiting its own people, or anyone. Intimidation and aggression are tools humans use to advance themselves. Its embrace reveals a sick society!

    America cannot afford for Trump to win so that destructive deals become the norm!

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