The media reports a brutal, dramatic sexual assault, prompting widespread condemnation and calls for institutional change. Before too long, though, contradictory details emerge, and the original account is called into question. The veracity of the victim is challenged, resulting in a welter of charges and counter-charges, confusion, and unanswered questions.
This could be a brief summation of the controversy surrounding Sabrina Rubin Erdely's exposé of sexual violence at the University of Virginia, which ran in November at Rolling Stone. But it could just as easily serve as a thumbnail description of the narrative around Eden, a 2012 indie film directed by Megan Griffiths supposedly based on the real life experiences of sex trafficking victim Chong Kim.
Erdely's article was centered on the story of Jackie, a young woman who described a gang rape at a fraternity house at UVA during her freshman year. The brutality and extremity of Jackie's story helped Erdely's report go viral—until inconsistencies in the account led Rolling Stone to print an apology and admit that they had failed to do sufficient fact-checking. Eden, too, was widely praised initially for its "excruciating vision"—a story depicting dozens of underage young women held in a brutal trafficking ring in the Southwest run by a marshall. It took longer for Chong Kim's story to be called into question, but two years after its release much of its narrative is in doubt. The Seattle newspaper The Stranger, which had championed Eden when it first came out, published a lengthy article earlier this month chronicling the charges and making a strong case that, whatever Eden is, it is not a true account of trafficking in the United States.
The Washington Post reported that Jackie tried to remove herself from the Rolling Stone story, but Erdely insisted on keeping her in the piece. If true, as Maya Dusenberry points out, is "a clear violation of ethical journalism guidelines for reporting on sexual assault," and seems to suggest that Rolling Stone was more focused on the riveting scoop than its ethical obligations. Similarly, while Chong Kim's story seems to have changed over time, the version in Eden, despite a "based on a true story" note at the beginning, appears to be pretty obviously fictionalized. Among other things, the film shows Kim killing one of the bad guys—which, if it happened, seems like it would expose her to murder charges. In both cases, then, protecting or helping the victim seems to take a back seat to the desire to craft an exciting narrative.
It's quite possible that both Chong Kim and Jackie experienced some kind of sexual assault or abuse—but simple, routine sexual assault isn't the story the media wanted to hear They also wanted to tell a gripping, riveting story—and sex and violence make a gripping, riveting story. More, the media goals of highlighting injustice and telling a gripping story often blur, so it's hard to tell which is which. As Jessica Luther, a journalist with a forthcoming book on football and sexual assault, told me:
We are saturated by a culture that sexualizes women but also demonizes them, that celebrates fuzzy consent and certainly doesn't punish it, that blames victims for the sexual violence done to them, that is sometimes willing to ask people to intervene but is never willing to directly say to men that they should not rape. This kind of saturation makes it so people don't really want to hear another story about a woman being sexually assaulted—and even if someone is willing to listen to story after story, what has to change to make it so these kinds of violent acts don't happen with such regularity feels insurmountable. So there is this idea then that to get people to care, the story of that violence that you share (either as a journalist or a survivor) has to shock people so that they say, "Damn, even in THIS culture that doesn't care much for women, THAT is bad."
As Luther says, people often don't want to hear about victims of sexual assault unless the stories are too horrible to ignore or brush aside. The painful flip side of that, though, is that, while there can be an impulse to minimize sexual violence, there's also a cultural enthusiasm for consuming it and packaging it as entertainment. If Eden were marketed as fiction, and without any other changes, it could be just another exploitation film. In stories about sexual violence the distinction between appealing to people's prurient instincts and appealing to their moral outrage can wear very thin.
Again, the impulse in looking for, and publicizing, sensational stories is often to wake people up, and to help victims. But the result can be the opposite. Most obviously, false accusations can damage the reputations of people who are innocent, and can make those who have been assaulted less likely to come forward, and less likely to be believed.
Beyond that, focusing on sensational stories can damage victims in other ways. Focusing on gang rapes by strangers can make it seem like that is the only sexual violence that counts as stranger violence, when most rapes are perpetrated by non-strangers, and a large percentage by friends, acquaintances, or intimates. There's perhaps an even more poisonous dynamic for sex workers, where narratives of sex trafficking, like those in Eden, are used to justify criminalizing prostitution, which puts the women involved at more, rather than less, risk.
"Eden was created to justify oppressive actions of law enforcement," according to Mistress Matisse, a Seattle dominatrix and sex-worker's rights activist who was one of the first to raise questions about the film. "It seeks to direct public money and resources away from real people who are truly suffering and asking for help, and towards sex-negative, sexist, racist, and generally repressive political agenda. The people most likely to be harmed by anti-trafficking policies are poor women, and most often women of color. They are most likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and to have their lives ruined by people who claim they are 'saving victims' by arresting them."
Sexual violence or victimization usually doesn't fit into exploitation tropes. The violence most sex workers face routinely is being harassed, arrested, and (sometimes) assaulted by police. When trafficking does happen, it's generally not a giant conspiracy involving U.S. marshalls but small-scale, petty, cruel cases of individual blackmail—an unphotogenic nightmare, as in the documentary A Civil Remedy. Similarly, Erdely's well-documented discussion of the ways in which UVa's bureaucracy fails to provide adequate resources or options for everyday victims of sexual assault was buried by the sensationalism of, and backlash against, Jackie's story.
"It's possible that the truth of sexual violence is too messy to fit within journalism's narrative preference for perfect victims and villains," Maya Dusenberry argues. I think that's right—but it's not just a desire for perfect victims and villains that makes it difficult to report on these issues. There's also a desire for exploitation itself, both on the part of the media and on the part of their audiences. For those who want to save victims and those who want to blame them, there is, or can often be, an investment in the narratives of sex and violence. Unless a writer, or a reader, is very careful, victim's stories, and the outrage or horror or titillation they provoke, become more important than the victims themselves.