Civil Liberties

Why Did Rolling Stone Writer Choose UVA, Not Vanderbilt, for Gang Rape Exposé?


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A jury convicted two former Vanderbilt University football players—Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey—of gang raping a female student during a night of heavy drinking and drug use. Authorities had plenty of graphic evidence to make their case, including photos, videos, and damning testimony. A snapshot, from the Associated Press:

Testimony showed Vandenburg passed out condoms to the other players, slapped her buttocks and said he couldn't have sex with the woman because he was high on cocaine.

Batey raped the woman and urinated on her, prosecutors said. His attorneys argued the images didn't show that.

Defense lawyers argued that Vandenburg and Batey were too drunk to know what they were doing and that a college culture of binge drinking and promiscuous sex should be partly to blame. …

Rumors about what happened quickly spread around campus, and the assault might have gone unnoticed had the university not stumbled onto the closed-circuit TV images several days later in an unrelated attempt to learn who damaged a dormitory door. The images showed players carrying an unconscious woman into an elevator and down a hallway, taking compromising pictures of her and then dragging her into the room.

It's telling that the perpetrators couldn't muster a better defense than drinking culture made us do it! Culture doesn't commit crime—individuals do. And the evidence that these young men behaved like animals and deserve prison is overwhelming.

But, while the culture argument is no defense whatsoever of their actions, and does not reduce their responsibility or culpability one iota, it is true that substance abuse played a role in the attack. At the very least, it was the tool by which Batey and Vandenburg perpetrated the crime, since the victim was incapacitated from drinking while it occurred. Such is often the case when rape disputes arise, which is why any productive discussion about reducing campus sexual assault must be intertwined with a discussion about the complete failure of national drug and alcohol policies.

Incidentally, I've seen some people hold up the Vandy case as if it somehow lessens the wrongness of Sabrina Rubin Erdely's debunked University of Virginia rape story. The UVA gang rape might not have happened, they say, but there's no reason it couldn't have happened—look at Vandy! This response is, in a word, wrong. UVA skeptics did not reach the conclusion that Jackie's allegations were unbelievable because she suffered a gang rape. Of course gang rapes happen on campus; there are numerous examples. What distinguished the UVA story from anything else ever reported was that the assault did not involve drugs or alcohol, required elaborate planning, and involved so many people that the perps could not have reasonably expected to get away with it—a confluence of factors that caused the allegations to have substantially more in common with ones that ultimately proved to be false, like the Duke lacrosse case and Tawana Brawley incident.

On a related note, the convictions of Batey and Vandenburg have prompted several writers to ask variations of this question, best summarized by Richard Bradley in a recent post—why didn't Erdely choose Vanderbilt for her gang rape story instead of UVA? Bradley writes:

The rape for which two Vanderbilt students (they're always referred to as football players, though I have no idea if that's relevant or just convenient) were just convicted is plenty horrific. And it has, from a crusading journalist's perspective, the advantage of being true. Is Vanderbilt just not as sexy a story as UVa?

I think I have an answer: At the end of the day, UVA's incredible story fit Erdely's narrative better than Vanderbilt's credible one. Erdely wanted to tell the story of a campus body and university administration behaving indifferently to an unspeakable crime. That's not what happened at Vandy: The students were expelled, convicted in criminal court, and now face lengthy prison sentences. The system does not always deliver justice to victims—or fairness to the accused—but in this case, it largely did.