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The UVA Rape Story: A Cautionary Tale in Skepticism

The UVA Rape Story: A Cautionary Tale in Skepticism

By Cathy Young - December 4, 2014

Less than two weeks after the publication of the dramatic Rolling Stone account of an alleged brutal fraternity gang rape and administrative cover-up at the University of Virginia—a report that prompted a new outcry against America’s “rape culture” and led UVA president Teresa Sullivan to suspend all fraternity activities on campus—questions are swirling about the story’s authenticity. The doubts are fueled partly by the confirmation that author Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not contact the alleged perpetrators or speak to possible corroborating witnesses, and partly by a critical examination of the story that started with a blogpost by veteran journalist and Worth magazine editor-in-chief Richard Bradley and was picked up by others. While it is certainly too early for conclusions, the UVA story may well end up being a cautionary tale about the perils of suspending skepticism about claims of rape.

The story, as told by a UVA student named Jackie (her last name was withheld by the magazine), is horrific enough to jolt a nation. In the fall of 2012, in her first month at the school, Jackie is brought to a fraternity party by a dashing fellow student and lured to an upstairs bedroom—where, in the pitch dark, she is suddenly tackled and thrown to the floor, crashing through a glass table as she falls, then pinned down and punched in the face when she tries to resist. For three excruciating hours, seven men—one of whom she recognizes as a classmate—take turns raping her, with her date, “Drew,” and another man giving instructions in what appears to be a fraternity initiation rite. At the end of her ordeal, she is violated with a beer bottle. 

The aftermath is equally mind-boggling. After a battered, bleeding Jackie escapes and calls some friends for help, they consider taking her to the hospital but decide that reporting a fraternity rape would risk a social backlash. As Jackie sinks into depression, other female friends belittle her and tell her to get over it. At the end of the year, after failing three classes, she finally tells her story to a dean; but since she is not ready to go to the police or even pursue a disciplinary charge, the university does nothing—not even when Jackie, by then an anti-rape activist, goes back to the same dean a year later to report that she has learned of two other sexual assaults at the same fraternity.

All this is based entirely on Jackie’s account; we now know that Erdely did not interview the alleged rapists or the friends who saw Jackie immediately after the incident. (There is no mention, either, of any comment from Jackie’s mother, who the article says accompanied her to the meeting with the dean.) Critics have also pointed to strikingly implausible details: for instance, Jackie was supposedly raped on the floor with “sharp shards digging into her back” from the shattered glass table but apparently received no medical attention. While the skeptics stress that they are not saying the incident didn’t happen, it seems virtually impossible that it happened as described. Broken glass aside, could Jackie have endured such brutal repeated rapes without sustaining injuries? Did no one notice marks on her face from being punched? How did she recognize a classmate in a pitch-black room?

The behavior of Jackie’s friends makes no sense, either—given the extreme violence of her alleged rape. That was what set off my own alarm bells on the second reading of the article. It’s quite plausible that young people could shrug off a friend’s story of sexual assault if it could be chalked up to misunderstanding or conflicting perceptions—that is, if it involved minimal physical force or incapacitation by alcohol. (Whether such attitudes reflect rape tolerance or the genuine ambiguity of many such claims is another matter.) But however debased the alcohol-soaked party and hookup culture at UVA may be, it strains credulity that so many people would treat a brutal gang rape as a minor “bad experience.” The same goes for “Drew” nonchalantly approaching his victim two weeks later to tell her he had “a great time.”  Again, this would be plausible in a situation in which the man could either sincerely or self-servingly take the woman’s submission for consent. Here, it is only believable if “Drew” is an utter psychopath.

More facts will undoubtedly emerge in the weeks to come. The truth may turn out to lie somewhere in between the sensational Rolling Stone account and the suspicions of hoax: one possibility is that Jackie’s assault was real but far less violent and perhaps more ambiguous than portrayed in the story. (Notably, in her message to the community, UVA President Sullivan noted that the Rolling Stone article contained “many details [of the alleged attack] that were previously not disclosed to University officials.”) In her interviews, Erdely herself has said that she cannot be certain of the exact events at the fraternity house and is convinced only that something traumatic happened to Jackie.  She has also stressed that what truly matters is the big picture of UVA’s culture of indifference to sexual assault.

Yet Erdely’s big picture is built around Jackie’s account; while she mentions talking to several other women dissatisfied with the school’s handling of their complaints, the only recent case described in some detail is one involving a woman who said she was groped and digitally penetrated by a male friend while drunk and disoriented. (The man received a one-year suspension; Erdely does not give his side of the story, or provide any detail on two other assaults he allegedly committed.)

In a regrettably unsurprising response, the first skeptical questions about the story were dismissed by a number of feminist and progressive commentators with name-calling, jeers about “truthers,” and accusations of sexism. Reason writer Robby Soave, one of the first journalists to publicly voice the possibility that the story might be a hoax, writes that he had to field a great deal of criticism from people who thought that “it was wrong … to write a story questioning a rape accusation at all.” This attitude is also pervasive among activists. At Slate.com, Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin write that the victim advocates to whom they spoke at UVA believe that “questioning a victim is a form of betrayal.” Wendy Murphy, an attorney who has filed complaints against universities—including UVA—for their inadequate handling of sexual violence reports, and who was quoted in the Rolling Stone piece, has said elsewhere that she has “never, ever met a false rape claim” and that talk of the presumption of innocence can sound like “presumption you’re a liar” to the victim.

Murphy said this, as it happens, in discussions of the Duke lacrosse team rape case—which was exposed as a hoax several months later. Obviously, this does not mean that the UVA case will be similarly exposed. But it is a reminder that while women, or men, who come forward with accusations of sexual violence deserve to be treated with support and respect, the sensitive nature of these cases is no reason to suspend rational judgment.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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