An explosive Rolling Stone article centered on a University of Virginia student’s account of gang rape — which eventually fell apart and was retracted by the magazine — is back in the news thanks to a defamation lawsuit.
Nicole Eramo, an administrator at UVA who was featured prominently in the article, is seeking $7.85 million in damages from Rolling Stone as a result of its discredited and retracted 2014 story, “A Rape on Campus.” Rolling Stone’s lawyers asked the judge to dismiss the case, but the judge only dismissed one part of the suit, so the trial is moving forward this week.
Last April, Rolling Stone officially retracted its cover story about campus sexual assault that focused on Jackie’s story of being raped by multiple men at a fraternity party, and her subsequent interactions with university administration, after major parts of Jackie’s story were called into question.
A police investigation found that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the assault, as Jackie described it in Rolling Stone, occurred. The Columbia Journalism School investigated what went wrong with the piece.
Jackie’s story, which came amid a larger national movement to push colleges and universities to improve the way they handle sexual assault cases, created a lot of concern over the potentially lasting harmful effects for rape victims — who are often smeared as lying about being assaulted.
“It was a horrible experience, but we were able to have a conversation.”
“I think it was really hard for the members of the One Less and general body that were here. It was saddening and frustrating,” Hannah Shadowen, a member of One Less, a sexual assault education group at the University of Virginia, said of the story’s retraction.
Two years later, advocates for sexual assault survivors say that although the article’s retraction was a painful experience for the community, the article did open up a candid conversation about sexual assault on campus.
Advocates at UVA like Shadowen say the Rolling Stone story brought forth more awareness and discussion of sexual assault issues. It had a lasting effect on the students who were on campus when the story broke — and, in some ways, it actually improved and broadened anti-rape advocacy on campus.
Shadowen said the story added a certain urgency to addressing the issue of sexual assault. “It was a horrible experience, but we were able to have a conversation,” she said.
The truth about sexual assault at the heart of the story
A report from the Columbia School of Journalism that examined where the Rolling Stone piece went wrong found several issues with the reporting. The report concluded that, in writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s effort to avoid retraumatizing and inflicting emotional pain on Jackie, she didn’t sufficiently question Jackie’s story. And Erdely’s adversarial relationship with the university, which she saw as blocking her efforts to report on the issue of campus rape, appeared to contribute to some of her inaccurate reporting on the administration’s role in responding to sexual assault survivors.
But, when it comes to issues of sexual assault on the UVA campus, the article wasn’t completely misleading. The Columbia Journalism School also found that Rolling Stone had sufficient reason to focus on UVA and be skeptical of how the administration handled sexual assault cases.
UVA had a record of potentially mishandling these cases before Erdely’s story was published, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had placed the school under a broad compliance review. The Columbia Journalism School noted that the history of the university’s management of sexual assault cases was indeed “checkered.”
“What surprised me were the people who said, ‘I didn’t know that was happening.’”
Investigators from the Office of Civil Rights did find that the university violated Title IX, the federal law that requires gender equity on college campuses, by failing to “promptly and equitable respond to certain complaints about sexual violence, including in instances in which the university did not promptly investigate information in cases that involved fraternities.”
The department did acknowledge that the university was taking the appropriate steps to meet its obligations under Title IX, however, and arrived at an agreement with UVA in the fall of last year.
Surveys and research tell us that campus rape is far too prevalent across the country as a whole, as well as at the University of Virginia specifically.
Research released from Rutgers University found that one in five women are subject to unwanted sexual contact on campus. Researchers from the University of Michigan found similar results in a May 2015 study. According to a 2015 survey that examined the prevalence of sexual assault at 27 major universities, the rate at the University of Virginia is actually slightly higher than the average — with 24 percent of undergraduate women reporting they have been assaulted. And although the typical campus rape scenario is imagined to involve a straight man assaulting a straight woman, rates of sexual assault are actually higher among LGBTQ students.
All of this information, as well as students’ experiences on campus, probably contributed to why the story seemed entirely plausible to many University of Virginia students. Although much of Erdely’s reporting was deeply flawed, the decision to report on UVA and highlight the issue of campus rape was journalistically sound.
“Some people felt it was a dramatic depiction of UVA, but were not really surprised by it,” Shadowen said. “What surprised me were the people who said, ‘I didn’t know that was happening.’”
How advocates survived the Rolling Stone retraction
Shadowen said there were “mumblings” from people who doubted the prevalence of sexual assault on campus after the retraction of the Rolling Stone story, but that most UVA students knew that they could be critical of the school while retaining some pride in attending UVA.
“A lot of people stood up and said, ‘This is happening.’ Enough people said that that it didn’t devolve into ‘Everyone is a liar,’” Shadowen said. “Some people wanted to protect the school but we are all very critical students. I think most people are going to critique the system, and say, ‘Yes we go to a wonderful school, but we need to say this can’t happen here.’”
Shadowen said that overall, she has seen an improvement since her first year in the number of people on campus saying that sexual assault is a problem.
Nick Favaloro is in his fourth year at UVA and is the PR coordinator for the group One in Four, which is a group of male students who reach out to first-year students and fraternities in the hope of reaching students who may not otherwise be involved in the conversation about sexual assault.
“I can say from experience that you can find allies in unexpected places.”
According to Favaloro, part of One in Four’s mission is to bring people who are initially defensive into conversations about sexual assault.
“There is no doubt that the Rolling Stone episode was a significant setback for the advocacy community… People’s defensive walls were raised in that they felt unduly targeted and were less likely to engage in a dialogue,” Favaloro added. “But one thing our group thought a lot about was how to keep doing work we did in changed landscape and adapt to it as best as we could.”
This new post-Rolling Stone environment pushed One in Four and One Less to collaborate and institute a program called Dorm Norms. Through this program, peers go into first-year dorms and talk about bystander intervention — a shift from One in Four’s previous focus on fraternities, and an opportunity to spread the message of bystander intervention as broadly as possible.
“This is speculation, but I think you can make the argument that the post-Rolling Stone landscape opened doors to allow program like that to be instituted,” Favaloro said. “There was an increased drive on part of student advocacy groups to foster a productive dialogue after the Rolling Stone story… The idea was that to introduce into this rocky atmosphere a constructive and productive platform.”
Press attention has returned to the campus since the trial began earlier this month. Though it hasn’t approached the initial press deluge two years ago, Favaloro did say there are “hints” of the trial re-opening old wounds over Rolling Stone, Jackie, and whether students trust rape victims.
“Some people are always going to be resistant to the idea that that violence happens,” Shadowen said.
But in general, Favaloro sees the news attention as an opportunity for the UVA community to find some degree of closure — and finally put the Rolling Stone controversy in the rear-view mirror.
Even when it comes to the students who were quick to doubt rape survivors after Rolling Stone’s retraction, Favaloro doesn’t think they’re a lost cause.
“I can say from experience that you can find allies in unexpected places,” he said.