Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax?


UVA / Karen Blaha

Journalists who contemplate such matters are now wondering whether the incredible Rolling Stone story about the gang rape of a University of Virginia student is just that: not credible.

Last week, I wrote that the breathtaking story was an indictment of the university's feeble attempts to address the so-called campus sexual assault crisis. For me, the lesson is clear: Rape is a serious crime, not an academic infraction. The police—and only the police—are equipped to deal with it. "The best way to confront campus rape is to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves and make violent crime the business of the normal criminal justice system," I wrote.

I didn't question the incident itself, because my point stands regardless. Making universities investigate and adjudicate rape—something that both federal and state governments are pushing—is the wrong approach, and what happened at UVA is just one example of why that's the case.

Unless, of course, it didn't happen. Then it would be an example of something else, entirely.

A recent Washington Post profile of Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the Rolling Stone story, raised some eyebrows:

Erdely spent weeks corroborating details of Jackie's account, including such minutiae as her work as a lifeguard. She concluded: "I find her completely credible. It's impossible to know for certain what happened in that room, because I wasn't in it. But I certainly believe that she described an experience that was in­cred­ibly traumatic to her."

Some elements of the story, however, are apparently too delicate for Erdely to talk about now. She won't say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie's alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached "Drew," the alleged ringleader, for comment. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who "is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that."

The story does take one journalistic shortcut. The alleged assault, described in graphic detail, is presented largely without traditional qualifiers, such as "according to Jackie" or "allegedly." The absence of such attribution or qualification leaves the impression that the events in question are undisputed facts, rather than accusations. Erdely said, however, that her writing style makes it clear that the events are being told from Jackie's point of view.

I have no reason to disbelieve Erdely, and I understand why she would choose not to disclose anyone's identity. But she should be able to confirm that she knows who the attackers are, shouldn't she? Again, we don't have to know who they are, but we should know that she knows—or else the story is just one long uncorroborated accusation. And regardless of whether or not the story is told "from Jackie's point of view," it was written by Erdely, who treats its contents as fact.

Journalist Richard Bradley read the story with a respectful but skeptical eye and came away with several important questions. After fretting about whether Erdely had done her due diligence and contacted the alleged attackers, he turns to the rape itself and finds the circumstances almost unbelievable:

The allegation here is that, at U.Va., gang rape is a rite of passage for young men to become fraternity "brothers." It's possible. One would think that we'd have heard of this before—gang rape as a fraternity initiation is hard to keep secret—but it's possible.

So then we have a scene that boggles the mind. (Again, doesn't mean it's untrue; does mean we have to be critical.)

A young woman is led young woman into a "pitch-black" room. She is shoved by a man, who falls on her; they crash through a glass table and she lands in shards of glass. She bites his hand; he punches her; the men laugh. (Really? A man punches a woman and people laugh?) With the smell of marijuana (not usually known as a violence-inducing drug) hovering over the room, he and six more men rape her. …

Having been raped for three hours while lying in shards of glass "digging into her back"—three hours of which Jackie remembers every detail, despite the fact of the room's pitch-blackness—she passes out and wakes up at 3 AM in an empty room.

Jackie makes her way downstairs, her red dress apparently sufficiently intact to wear; the party is still raging. Though she is blood-stained—three hours with shards of glass "digging into her back," and gang-raped, including with a beer bottle— and must surely look deeply traumatized, no one notices her. She makes her way out a side entrance she hadn't seen before. She calls her friends, who tell her that she doesn't want to be known as the girl who cried rape and worry that if they take her to the hospital they won't get invited to subsequent frat parties.

Nothing in this story is impossible; it's important to note that. It could have happened. But to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark—as virtually all the people who've read the article seem to—requires a lot of leaps of faith. It requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases. …

"Grab its motherfucking leg," says the first rapist to one of his "brothers." It reminds me of Silence of the Lambs: "It rubs the lotion on its skin…" But Silence of the Lambs was fiction.

Bradley notes that his experience editing the works of infamous fabulist Stephen Glass taught him to be extra critical of stories that confirm his pre-existing biases. And he notes that the UVA rape story seems to confirm biases that many in the media have about colleges, fraternities, and rape.

I would like to think that I am relatively free of these biases. I have no particular axe to grind with fraternities, although I do think they play a regrettable and occasionally dangerous role as alcohol distributors to the under-21 crowd, courtesy of the federal drinking age. And I don't believe sexual assault is as grave a problem at college campuses as many activists have made it out to be—if the 1-in-4 statistic were anywhere close to accurate, it would be a baffling outlier in a sea of falling rape rates.

So when I say that I was initially inclined to believe the story, it's not because I wanted or needed it to be true to fit my worldview. Rather, I assumed honesty on the part of the author and her source—not because I'm naive, but because I didn't think someone would lie about such an unbelievable story. This isn't a case of he-said / she-said; this is an extraordinary crime that indicts a dozen people and an entire university administration. Assuming a proper investigation—which the police are now conducting—confirming many of the specific details should be relatively easy. If "Jackie" is lying, there is a good chance she will be caught (and Erdely's career ruined). So I believed it.

However, some of the details do strike me as perplexing on subsequent re-reads. One issue now being raised by skeptics is the nature of her injuries, which sound as if they would have required immediate medical attention. (According to the story, everybody involved was basically rolling around in broken glass for hours.) If the frat brothers were absolute sociopaths to do this to Jackie, her friends were almost cartoonishly evil—casually dismissing her battered and bloodied state and urging her not to go to the hospital.

Universities should be divorced from the rape adjudication process, regardless of what actually happened at UVA that night. That said, I'll be following any and all developments in this case, and am eager to see this particular story either confirmed as true or exposed as a hoax.