Last November, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” a feature article detailing the alleged gang rape of a woman named Jackie at the University of Virginia. The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has since been discredited, and its implications have been far-reaching for journalists, sexual assault prevention advocates, survivors and U.Va. students. But as a student and a journalist at U.Va., I’m frustrated to see much of the popular discourse overlook crucial points about Rolling Stone’s failure, which began long before the account was discredited—specifically, the story’s implications for survivors of sexual assault.
Many commentators—and even Rolling Stone’s own staffers—have argued the publication of a false account has set back important efforts against sexual assault, as it may dissuade survivors from telling their stories in the future and foster a culture of disbelief if survivors do come forward. It is equally important to question what the impacts of Rolling Stone’s article would have been if the story held up to scrutiny. Few seem to understand that, had the journalistic integrity of the piece stood, this article would still have had negative repercussions for survivors. If it had all worked out, and the magazine had published a factually sound expose on campus rape, where would we be in the movement against campus rape now?
When Erdely’s article first came out, journalists lauded her investigation as the expose on college rape we had all been waiting for—the narrative that would fundamentally change the national discussion of campus sexual assault. This reaction demonstrates how deeply our society misunderstands the realities of campus rape, most of which looks little like the story Erdely told.
Last spring, around the time Rolling Stone officially retracted its story, a fellow student and recent rape survivor quietly told me her story. Like many women, she had been raped by someone she knew well. After her rape she was in so much pain that she went to the hospital. But though she knew she had not consented to sex, she told me that for a long time she couldn’t bring herself to call what happened to her “rape.” This, she said, was because her experience wasn’t as violent as what happened to Jackie. She was not only traumatized by the experience of her assault—Rolling Stone’s article convinced her that her experience was not real.
This is because Erdely’s portrayal was not that of a typical student survivor. The story Erdely told showed rape at its most violent, and students and college administrators at their most apathetic. She took extremes and portrayed them as the norm—when the realities of campus rape and schools’ adjudication of it are much, much more complex. The story Erdely made her focus is far from representative of the sexual assaults that an estimated one in five women will experience in college.
And because of this failure to represent sexual assault as it typically occurs—which has been perpetuated by more institutions and publications than Rolling Stone, certainly—there are survivors who don’t understand that their rapes are in fact rapes. This should concern us just as much as the factual inaccuracies of the article. A singular narrative has entered survivors’ psyches and forced them to question the reality of their own experiences. It is true that Rolling Stone’s retraction was a setback for an important movement, but what we must realize is that, retracted or not, the article by design was always poised to be a setback. It was always going to misrepresent sexual assault and deter sexual assault prevention.
Instead of attempting to understand the culture of a school with nearly 16,000 undergraduate students, investigating the legal requirements handed down to schools via Title IX, and incorporating well-studied trends regarding sexual assault into her research, Erdely attempted to shock readers into addressing and caring about a long-standing issue. Of course, I empathize with the effort to make people care about sexual assault, and centering a story around gang rape provides a shock value that may jolt people into doing so. But by emphasizing extremes, the article provided no analysis of the intricacies of college rape, which is rarely straightforward, especially as we struggle to define consent. Gang rape undoubtedly happens and has happened at U.Va., and it is terrifying that this is the case; but we should not conflate gang rape with all rape, or we risk undermining the trauma far too many women experience.
It took attending a Take Back the Night vigil toward the end of my first year for me to begin understanding the complexities of sex in college and how to define sexual assault. As I heard peers tell their stories—including Jackie, who spoke at the event—the scope of the problem became clearer. I heard stories that were far too familiar to me, and discovered that my own conception of sexual assault was too narrow. And if this was my first exposure to this, what did peers from other places know of consent? We push the problem of preventing sexual assault on to universities because of their in loco parentis role, but somehow we fail to see that the problem starts so much earlier than that. Habits have formed long before students reach our campus, yet our administrators are left trying to combat conceptions of sex and consent that have existed in students’ minds for almost their entire lives.
And yet, at U.Va., students have often led the charge to change those habits. But this was another tragedy of Erdely’s article: that students who worked so tirelessly and with such passion for these causes saw their work crumble before their eyes. At the Take Back the Night vigil last year, some survivors said they wished they had never gotten involved in advocacy. They felt their efforts had gone to waste. Between the first vigil I attended and the second, an event that was once sad yet empowering was now full of defeatism.
Since that time, we’ve gathered more information about the nature of sexual assault at our school. In September, the Office for Civil Rights released the findings of its four-year compliance investigation of U.Va., finding that the administration was not compliant with Title IX regulations from the 2008-2009 school year through the 2011-12 school year, lacking prompt and equitable responses to certain reports of sexual assault. The Association of American Universities also released the results of a campus climate survey on sexual misconduct that suggests nearly one in four women at U.Va. experiences sexual assault or misconduct while on campus.
The findings affirm the severity of the issue of sexual assault at U.Va, and after the tumult of last year, these findings could have bred apathy instead of activism. But fortunately, and remarkably, students and student survivors are finding sources for inspiration again. At a school that prides itself on the concept of student self-governance, students learn to work within existing structures to create change. This requires a sustained effort that can feel daunting after the Rolling Stone piece and backlash. Still, there are many people at this school—students, faculty, and administrators—who are prepared to go the distance.
This year, an anthropology professor created a course specifically devoted to gender-based violence; administrators and students have spearheaded the Green Dot program, an initiative that trains community members to be active bystanders; U.Va. has extensively modified its sexual misconduct policy to incorporate more staff members and bring its investigation protocols up to federal standards, among other changes; and we have continued the “Hoos Got Your Back” program, also aimed at increasing bystander intervention. Some initiatives were brought about as a result of Rolling Stone’s article, but many if not most of them have been in the works for months and even years. We understand that change is not brought about by a flashy, 9,000-word expose—even an accurate one. At this school, it is brought about by dedicated students and a responsive administration. And while it may take years to unravel the complexities of Rolling Stone’s mistake, we are starting to get back on track.
Dani Bernstein is a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is the executive editor of the student paper The Cavalier Daily.
Image by Jim Cooke, inset via Rolling Stone