Sexual assault at universities is tied to some major American social issues of the day. Feminism. Intersectionality. Privilege. Factual feelings. Campus liberalism. The alt-right backlash. Transgender bathrooms (some have argued they must be shut down to protect women from being assaulted by libidinous perverts). Guns. Yes, even guns. “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them,” is the rhetoric a pro-gun Nevada assemblywoman used to argue that concealed guns should be allowed on campus. A Florida state representative upped the ante: “If you’ve got a person that’s raped because you wouldn’t let them carry a firearm to defend themselves, I think you’re responsible.” Young activists argued that this was not only exploiting their cause but also promoting rape myths, since guns aren’t much use defending against an acquaintance, but in 2017, Arkansas became the ninth state to allow concealed firearms at universities, joining Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
In this polarized environment, liberals thought it best to solidify the Obama-era protections around Title IX. Kirsten Gillibrand, who, upon inheriting Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, made fighting rape a high- profile piece of her agenda and who is a “true believer” on this issue, says a source close to her, led the charge. Her military assault bill that would have taken cases out of the jurisdiction of the chain of command proved too divisive to prevail in the Senate, but now she’d joined with one of her opponents, Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, to create the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a campus rape bill that would create severe fines for Title IX violations, up to 1 percent of a university’s operating budget—which, for a school like Columbia University, could come to tens of millions. It would also make some of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter’s recommendations into federal law.
Over a series of breakfasts and luncheons, Gillibrand formed a coalition of thirty-six senators that included even Republicans Joni Ernst, Charles Grassley, and Marco Rubio. The bill was so popular, in fact, that South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, another cosigner, would later joke, “In a polarized political environment, this bill would get 90 votes. I’m just assuming 10 people won’t show up.” Senators liked this issue. “Educated females— largely the beneficiaries of Title IX — have become a massive political force, and it’s just blisteringly clear where they stand on this,” says Peter Lake of Stetson University.
A politician retailing legislation is always more successful if there’s a cultural product like a film, dramatizing a bill’s central tenets, and the release of The Hunting Ground, the campus-rape documentary featuring Los Angeles activists Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, was coordinated with Gillibrand’s office. Soon, the previously free-range duo, with their Craigslist apartment and cardboard desk, began working on state- and national-level policy reform. Though articles on the shortcomings of the film, including what was perceived as a one-sided depiction of an assault case at Harvard, poured forth, The Hunting Ground made it to nearly a thousand American campuses.
When Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” the film’s theme song, received an Oscar nod, young activists seized the moment to put on a memorable performance. First, Biden took the stage and called on the audience to “change the culture,” and then Gaga, with her Donatella Versace–esque blond mane and a tight white pantsuit covering a wealth of non-Versace-esque tattoos, began pounding on a white grand piano. Midway through the song, fifty survivors standing behind her, including Clark and Pino, joined hands and raised them in solidarity, some with the phrase We believe you in black marker on their forearms. The A-list audience gave them a standing ovation, cameras panning to a teary Rachel McAdams, Kate Winslet, and Brie Larson, who later made a point of giving every survivor a hug. After the show, Gaga, who says she was raped by a mentor-producer early in her career, headed to a tattoo shop and had the design of one of the onstage survivors’—a thin, black-outlined rose on fire —inked on her left shoulder.
This was not Sulkowicz dragging a mattress across a campus quad; these were the most famous women in America. As the issue exploded among female celebrities, they began to support one another, like girls on campus were supporting their friends. In 2016, when Kesha struggled to exit a recording contract with Dr. Luke, her furious peers launched a Mount St. Helens–size eruption. Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Lorde, Kelly Clarkson, and Janelle Monáe tweeted support almost instantly. Fiona Apple, raped in her teen years by a stranger, took a pic of herself holding a sign reading “kesha— i am so angry for you. they were wrong. i’m so sorry.” Adele, accepting an award, declared, “I’d like to take this moment to publicly support Kesha.” Taylor Swift even donated $250,000 for her legal fees.
This was more than a sign of the burgeoning solidarity among female celebrities, with their air-kiss superficiality; it was a new Bat signal, summoning girl power. Lena Dunham took up the cause in her online magazine Lenny, writing that “it wasn’t long ago that women in the public eye didn’t have a loose-enough leash to reach out and support one another, for fear of losing all they had worked so hard to create. Instead they quietly watched on their televisions, hoping they wouldn’t be next.” She issued a whoop of victory: “Those days are over. They are fucking done.”
Even as Gillibrand and female celebrities were holding court in front of cameras, a multi-pronged attack on college survivors was percolating behind the scenes—one in which victory was within the counterinsurgency’s grasp. This movement began quietly at the end of 2014, when an opening was offered by Rolling Stone magazine’s lurid tale of the University of Virginia.
As anyone who turned on a TV or read a news blog then knows, Rolling Stone told the story of a UVA freshman named Jackie from a rural town. One night on a date at Rugby Road’s Phi Kappa Psi frat, clad in a high-necked, blood-red dress, Jackie found herself in a pitch-black room where she was pushed into a glass table, then attacked by seven boys in what seemed like a pledge ritual. “There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her,” wrote the author of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely. “‘Grab its motherfucking leg,’ she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.”
After the boys had their way with her—including a classmate in her anthropology discussion group who penetrated her with a beer bottle—Jackie, in Erdely’s telling, passed out. Later, she “ran shoeless from the room” at three a.m., a “disheveled girl hurrying down a side staircase, face beaten, dress spattered with blood.” She dialed a friend’s number and screamed, “Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!” The trio of classmates who appeared at her side, though, were no help. They didn’t take her to the hospital: “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” They thought the social price of reporting rape was too high: “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
Jackie may have escaped Phi Psi’s house of horrors, but Erdely had more to say about rape at UVA. She quoted a student lobbing the idea that the school’s sexual-assault stats were “one in three” rather than one in five, said students had nicknamed the school “UVrApe,” and claimed the university withheld some data about sexual assault because, according to a dean, “Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.” She wrote that the school hadn’t meted out punishment even when a student, angry that Jackie was disrupting the order of Thomas Jefferson’s university, threw a bottle at her; even when, the bruise from the bottle “still mottling her face,” Jackie proclaimed that two other women had been gang-raped at Phi Psi, one of them a girl who said she’d been assaulted in a bathroom at the frat by four men while a fifth watched and then had run back to her room without any pants.
In hindsight, it’s hard to read this account as anything but fiction. But when Rolling Stone published the story, it rocked the campus. Vandals spray-painted on a wall next to Phi Kappa Psi’s house UVA Center for RAPE Studies and Suspend Us!; faculty organized a massive rally named Take Back the Party: End Rape Now! down Rugby Road. President Teresa Sullivan closed all frats until semester’s end, declaring, “I think the Greek community needs to do some serious soul-searching about the way that it has behaved, about the behavior it’s tolerated, about what its future is going to be.”
Yet within weeks, it became clear that Erdely had fallen into a trap of her own making. Jackie had spun at least some part of the tale out of her imagination. The boy she’d named as her companion, Haven Monahan, was a pure invention, albeit one with his own e-mail account, which she apparently established herself.
I’ve written for Rolling Stone over the years. I’m aware of the way their fact-checkers worry the details in stories prepared for publication; a conversation about whether Julia Louis-Dreyfus has dark brown or medium black hair when I filed an article about her comes to mind. But Erdely was a trusted Rolling Stone reporter with a track record of hits. The staff took her declaration of faith—I believe Jackie—to heart, as well her contention that they were dealing with a deeply traumatized young adult who refused to allow them to vet her story because she was terrified of the prospect of retaliation at the hands of Phi Psi. The dazzle of printing a blockbuster must have come into play too—the story was exactly what Erdely and her editors had been looking for. Caught up in the drama that they themselves had scripted, they never suspected they were dealing with a fabulist.
Rolling Stone, with its progressive politics and muckraking zeal, was inclined to view UVA as an authoritarian hotbed of corruption and misogyny; this was the magazine’s confirmation bias. The article’s author was knowledgeable about the neurobiology of trauma, which created yet another layer of complexity. When Erdely encountered a friend of Jackie’s who told her that Jackie’s original story involved oral sex rather than being penetrated, Erdely interpreted this wavering story as a symptom of genuine suffering. “To the contrary, I found this to be entirely consistent,” Erdely said. “In my experience writing about trauma victims and sexual assault victims, I know that their stories can sometimes evolve over time as they come to terms with what happened to them and work through their own shame and self blame.”
This willful abdication of journalistic skepticism led to its inevitable conclusion: Erdely, her editors, and the magazine were disgraced, along with Jackie, and the movement was dealt a heavy blow. But it’s worth pointing out that by publication, there had been a yearlong barrage of articles about universities’ malicious treatment of rape survivors, and few outlets double-checked survivor stories.
Should they have? Discussing the UVA case, prominent activists pushed back against this idea. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a Tufts survivor, said, “I’ve been able to share my story over various media outlets without having any of them reach out to my assailant.” On BuzzFeed, she added, “Realistically, how does talking to a rapist confirm that a rape occurred? Do we really believe that a rapist would admit, ‘Oh yes, I was there and I raped her’ if a journalist approached them? . . . Demanding that we must hear both sides when we talk about sexual violence plays into the tired ‘he said/she said’ framing often used to dismiss sexual assault.” This was connected to the activists’ top commandment: Believe survivors. “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says,” Zerlina Maxwell, another activist of note, wrote in the Washington Post. “Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” She added, “This is not a legal argument about what standards we should use in the courts; it’s a moral one, about what happens outside the legal system.”
This is the advocates’ role in the sexual assault ecosystem; investigators might probe, and police might ignore, but they must believe. But publicly accusing a specific fraternity of raping girls in a pledge ritual without evidence cannot lie within the media’s purview. The fact that Rolling Stone hadn’t sought confirmation and then defended itself by blaming Jackie for its own lapses—“we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” it said—is part of why the magazine was scarred by the scandal and later sued by Phi Psi, which asked for $25 million in damages. A jury awarded the dean maligned with the “rape school” comment $3 million.
This failure upended the media game around campus rape. Stories in progress, some about well-known figures, were sent to a permanent purgatory. “A great number of people are gleefully celebrating Rolling Stone’s retraction because now they can hold on to their fervent belief that rape is not epidemic,” author Roxane Gay wrote in The Toast, adding dryly, “Their glee provides quite a display.”
But Jackie wasn’t completely abandoned. The National Organization for Women called Jackie a “sexual assault survivor” and, when the dean’s attorney requested access to her texts and e-mails, demanded President Sullivan “put a stop to what we regard as a re-victimization of this young woman.” Critics of the anti-rape movement were aghast at this rhetoric. “Frankly, I find the refusal to let go of Jackie to be chilling,” one of them tells me.
Meanwhile, the University of Virginia, which has a strict honor code that includes expulsion for cheating and plagiarism, had not expelled a single student for sexual assault in the decade prior to the Rolling Stone story. In the fracas over the article, they claimed victim status, even though at the same time Erdely was following Jackie around campus, they were under what Peter Lake calls an “almost unprecedented Office for Civil Rights review.” In 2016, OCR released a report about UVA’s litany of ills, from slow-footing cases to a wonky informal review process to not “evaluating steps necessary to protect [the] safety of the broader University community.” Lake offers this analogy for Erdely’s reporting: “I once got food poisoning in a Texas restaurant, and I called the Texas Department of Health. They said, ‘We just got a hundred calls from that restaurant but it’s too bad because they’re from the chain’s other location, so you’ve got no complaint.’ Sometimes there’s something in the air, and you almost get it.”
As of 2016, two UVA students have been expelled for sexual assault. This isn’t a surprise; the Harvard Business School study that analyzed U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings vis-à-vis scandals revealed that such scandals force schools to correct the underlying problems quickly. Within five years, however, another scandal usually rears its head. Five years; a little longer than it takes a class of students at a four-year college to move through the institution, gazing back through the nostalgic haze of homecoming games and alumni weekends. Without new students maintaining pressure, institutional memory becomes fuzzy. It’s anyone’s guess whether the University of Virginia will remain on the straight and narrow.
Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, specializing in pop culture, youth movements, and crime reporting. She is a National Magazine Award winner and has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Dateline and Investigation Discovery shows.
Reprinted with permission from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright ©2017 by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Published by Eamon Dolan Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.