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.
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.