After this story was published, Rolling Stone issued a statement saying that it has come to doubt Jackie’s account of what happened to her at the UVA frat house. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” Will Dana, the managing editor of the magazine, wrote. The headline of this story has been updated, but the text below remains the same.
It’s been two weeks since Rolling Stone published an investigation into the University of Virginia administration’s failure to adequately respond to allegations of a gang rape at a frat house, and the backlash to the story is intensifying. Much of that criticism is stemming from doubts that college men are capable of carrying out a premeditated assault on that scale — an assumption that ignores the ugly truth about the nature of these crimes.
Outlets ranging from the New Republic to Slate to Fox News have suggested the Rolling Stone reporter failed to do her due diligence because she presented Jackie’s story as fact, and didn’t let the accused men tell their side of the story.
Figuring out how to report fairly on rape allegations — a sensitive subject rife with victim-blaming and attempts to discredit victims who make the difficult choice to speak out — can present some thorny challenges for members of the media. Many of the writers who have been critical of the piece are raising concerns specifically about what they consider to be missteps in Rolling Stone’s reporting process, which is a separate issue than the one addressed here.
Other critics are taking it a step further, claiming that the central figure in the Rolling Stone piece, a young woman identified only by Jackie — which is her real first name — may have fabricated the horrific details about her gang rape. This argument is supported only by their assumption that gang rapes like the one that Jackie describes don’t happen on college campuses.
One of the first arguments along these lines appeared on the personal blog of the author and magazine editor Richard Bradley, who concludes that he’s “not convinced that this gang rape actually happened” because “something about this story doesn’t feel right.”
“A young woman is lured to a fraternity in order to be gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation. It’s a premeditated gang rape,” Bradley writes incredulously. “I am not, thankfully, an expert on premeditated gang rape, but to the extent that it exists, it seems to be most prevalent in war-torn lands or countries with a strain of a punitive, misogynist and violent religious culture (Pakistan, for example).”
Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times and Robby Soave at Reason Magazine picked up this line of reasoning in their own pieces about why Jackie’s story “stretches credulity” and may be a “giant hoax.” Goldberg argues that since the alleged rape wasn’t a “spontaneous alcohol-fueled case of some cretin refusing to take no for an answer” and is instead “a sober, well-planned gang rape by seven fraternity pledges at the direction of two members,” it’s hard to believe it really happened that way.
But the fact that Jackie says she was assaulted by multiple men isn’t necessarily unique. Gang rapes happen on college campuses, and they especially happen within fraternities; in fact, a widely acclaimed 1990 book entitled Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus detailed the trend.
“Gang rape has become somewhat of an epidemic on college campuses,” explained a 1991 review of that book published in the American Journal of Sociology. “The victim, often rendered unconscious by spiked drinks or drugs at a fraternity party, is unable to resist. Afterward, the men rationalize the event in terms of a sexual encounter that brought them together as brothers.”
It’s not hard to find additional evidence. Right after Rolling Stone published its UVA investigation, the Washington Post reported that Jackie’s story “bears a striking similarity to other stories of fraternity gang rape,” based on the academic research in the field. There are plenty of headlines along these lines, too — gang rapes reported at a Johns Hopkins frat party, in a William Paterson University dorm, in a Vanderbilt University dorm.
Jackie says she was raped with a beer bottle while her assailants laughed and joked with each other, which is a detail that even some critics who are more sympathetic to her find hard to swallow. But the five Vanderbilt University football players who were accused of gang raping a 21-year-old student in a Nashville dorm room also allegedly used objects to penetrate the victim. This summer, a high schooler in Georgia accused three student athletes of gang raping her with foreign objects. And an infamous gang rape case that occurred in Virginia in 2009 involved three young men who penetrated a high school girl with foreign objects as “onlookers chanted, laughed and shouted encouragement to the attackers.”
And more broadly, critics of Jackie’s story are oblivious to the larger culture fueling the campus rape crisis. The notion that most campus sexual assaults are drunken accidents stemming from miscommunication — and the subsequent assumption that allegations of more premeditated crimes must be far-fetched — betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about how sexual violence occurs on college campuses.
According to David Lisak, an expert on the nature of sexual crimes and one of the only researchers who has spent years studying rapists’ behavior, most college sexual assaults are perpetrated by a small number of men who rape multiple people. These are not well-meaning college bros who accidentally push their sexual partners’ boundaries after having one too many beers. These are serial rapists, and evidence shows that they carefully plan their attacks.
Lisak has found that rape doesn’t occur because alcohol clouds students’ judgement; rather, rapists use alcohol as one of the many tools as their disposal to incapacitate their victims. They also rely on emotionally manipulating victims whom they’ve identified as vulnerable; often, young women who may be insecure or seeking validation from their peers. College rapists “plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically,” Lisak wrote in his groundbreaking study into the demographic.
In 2012, when a now-deleted Reddit thread asked rapists to explain their motivations, one man who identified himself as a serial college rapist described tactics that nearly identically mirrored Lisak’s findings.
The hard truth is that sexual violence involving young people can be horrific, and disturbing, and even ritualized as part of a bonding activity. These are difficult realities to confront; ultimately, they force Americans to reassess their preconceived notions about the scope of the campus sexual assault crisis.
It’s easier to imagine that college women are embellishing details than it is to acknowledge the fact that they may not be safe at their schools, or consider whether fraternities could be a part of the problem. But no matter what issues critics have with the Rolling Stone’s presentation of Jackie’s story, the argument that it simply seems too awful to be true is an exercise in denial.