On Friday, Rolling Stone withdrew their support for a harrowing account of a gang rape in the magazine’s cover story about the University of Virginia’s botched handling of rape cases, declaring their trust was “misplaced” in Jackie, the student featured most prominently in the piece. Many advocates worry the doubts cast on Jackie’s story could well discourage other victims from coming forward with their stories, while adding fuel to the myth that women often fabricate rape accusations.
The inconsistencies highlighted in the Washington Post’s examination of Jackie’s case are not uncommon in other rape investigations; the date, the identity of her primary assailant, and the extent of her injuries have all been questioned. Jackie reportedly divulged to her friends the name of the student who allegedly orchestrated the gang rape after keeping it secret for two years. The name didn’t match any of the brothers in Phi Kappa Psi, but was similar to the name of a student who was in a different frat. Phi Kappa Psi has also claimed that none of their members were employed by the Aquatic Fitness Center at the time, one of the few identifying details in the Rolling Stone story. Additionally, a friend interviewed by the Post said she had heard that Jackie had changed the number of her attackers from five to seven over the course of a few months.
Traumatic rape can and has caused far more extreme discrepancies in victims’ minds. Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program, highlighted several cases in which women had actually convinced themselves they had not been assaulted. “In the case of a woman who accused three Mets players of gang-rape, she said that after the attack, she made the bed and did not realize that she had been raped until three days later,” Schafran writes. In other cases, “the victim may acknowledge that she knew the rapist yet not be able to tell the police his name.”
People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder also tend to show erratic behavior when recounting what happened to them — laughing at inappropriate times, confusing the chronology of events — which can sound suspicious to the untrained listener. Their brains cope with trauma by recalling the attack in fragments, or focusing on sensory memories, like the smell of cologne. Police sometimes make this worse by getting adversarial when they spot inconsistencies, which can inadvertently influence the victim’s account.
At the same time, the public remains far more skeptical of rape than of other crimes. Studies show most people, especially women, believe victims are at least partly responsible for their rape if they get into bed with the rapist; a third of women in one British study said a victim was to blame if she dressed provocatively or went home with the rapist.
These prejudices take root at a young age, and make it even harder for victims to get justice. Jurors in rape cases often make decisions based on their own ideas of what “real” rape looks like. FBI statistics show that just 40 percent of rape cases see any kind of resolution, compared to 64 percent of murder cases and and 57 percent of assault cases. That’s because cops and prosecutors often make the calculation not to pursue a case because they know how difficult it will be to convince a jury of the rapist’s guilt.
A case can be derailed by any departure in the victim’s behavior from the public’s idea of what victimhood should be. A New Zealand researcher found that the police viewed 86 percent of women who waited to report the rape with suspicion, as well as 83 percent of victims who had previously had consensual sex with their rapist. Nearly three-quarters of complaints by women who were drunk or drugged were doubted or outright dismissed.
Jackie’s account of her rape may or may not be completely accurate. But regardless of her story, Rolling Stone’s backpedaling will create yet another hurdle for victims who just want someone to believe them.