The Real Problem With Rolling Stone's Campus Rape Fiasco

The hysteria over "rape culture" is still alive and kicking.


It's great that those who value truth and reason finally won out over Rolling Stone, publisher of 2014's most egregious example of dime store fantasy journalism.

Through doing the things Rolling Stone flatly failed to—elevating fact-gathering over moral narratives; hunting down info; asking awkward questions—bloggers, journalists, and, now, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism successfully exploded the myth of a gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA) in 2012.

Truth, 1; Agenda-Driven Mythmaking, Nil. A clear win for fact over fallacy, objectivity over journalism more interested in telling a morality tale, however tall, than in communicating clear, proven facts. A victory for veracity. Right?

I'm not so sure. The Rolling Stone story might be dead, slain by an army of genuinely inquisitive observers. But the hysteria that made that fact-lite mess of a feature possible in the first place survives. It staggers on, bloodied but unbowed, Michael Myers-style.

Yes, Rolling Stone is reprimanded, but the unhinged panic about a "rape culture" on campus that made that mag so blind to the hollowness of Jackie's story is still getting away with it. Indeed, Rolling Stone's final withdrawal of its story this week, following Columbia's cool dismantling of it, has, perversely, given rise to a chorus of demands that we now focus on the true problem: the epidemic of rape on campus.

The hysteria is dead, long live the hysteria!

The most common criticism made of Rolling Stone in the past few days is that it has hampered the war against campus sexual assault. In publishing BS about a gang rape at UVA, it created a situation where female students, apparently under threat, might feel reluctant to speak out. In short: the problem with Rolling Stone's rape-culture mythmaking is that it made it harder to grapple with rape culture.

The Columbia report itself contains the seeds of this concern. It criticises Rolling Stone for spreading "the idea that many women invent rape allegations." In the section on "Reporting Rape on Campus," it doesn't address the central problem with such reporting—that it too often buys into totally inflated stats about assault—but instead offers advice on how to sensitively cover rape stories.

In her statement on Columbia's report, the author of Rolling Stone's rape tale, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, apologized to her readers and editors (but not to frats she so scandalously defamed), and she said sorry to the "victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article." Her main concern is ensuring that, even after her disastrous piece, "the voices of the victims" will still be heard. 

UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan took a similar line, slamming Rolling Stone for distracting attention from the real problem, the "serious issue": sexual violence on campus.

Even as she rapped Rolling Stone's knuckles for publishing a scare story about rape, Sullivan promised to introduce "substantive reforms" to "improve culture" on her campus as a means of "prevent[ing] violence" and "ensur[ing] the safety of our students so they can learn and achieve their personal potential in an environment of trust and security."

So apparently there is a culture issue at UVA, a violence issue, an attitudinal problem that needs top-down fixing.

What these responses share in common is a desire to draw attention back to the alleged real stuff: female students not being believed; a warped campus culture that needs intervention; the need to turn campuses from alleged sites of violence back into "environments of security."

They're still buying the core misconception of Ederly's article, the really rotten part: the idea of a culture of rape, a culture of evil. According to Columbia's report, Ederly wanted to find a "single, emblematic college rape case" that would show, in Ederly's own words, "what it's like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment / rape culture." And much of the response to Columbia's report is basically saying: Her emblematic case was hooey, yes, but she's right about the pervasive-culture thing.

Only she isn't. And if we correct Rolling Stone without challenging the rape-culture myth, then we leave the colossal problems here untouched.

Media feminists have been even more explicit in their demand that we swiftly turn our eyes away from Rolling Stone's failings and back to the alleged tsunami of sexual assault on campus.

Jessica Valenti frets that the Jackie fiasco will damage efforts "to end sexual violence on campus"—campuses where the "scourge of rape" is rife. Over at the radical lesbian magazine, Curve, Victoria A. Brownworth says it's all well and good for Rolling Stone to have retracted its story, but "some things can't be retracted"—like the fact that "Rape culture is real. There's a pandemic of rape on college campuses like UVA."

Feminist Suzannah Weiss says "we shouldn't let Rolling Stone's mistakes stand in the way of taking campus sexual assaults seriously," since "campus rape culture is a very real problem." This only says more openly what Ederly and Sullivan nodded to in their post-Columbia statements: that for all the faults in the Rolling Stone piece, the thing Ederly hoped to illustrate—the existence of a "pervasive culture of sexual harassment"—is still around and requires substantive action.

But this culture doesn't exist. Are women on campus sometimes sexually assaulted? Yes, they are, as are women in all walks of life, tragically. But the idea of a culture of rape on campus is bunkum.

It's been shot down by libertarian and liberal feminists, most notably Emily Yoffe at Slate, who trashed with facts the oft-spouted idea that one-in-five college women are sexually assaulted before they graduate.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1995 and 2011 only 0.6 percent of college women had experienced an attempted or actual sexual assault, which is less than the 0.8 percent of non-college women aged 18 to 24 who had the same experience over the same time. So American colleges are not hotbeds of assault and rape, and are actually safer for women than most other zones of life.

Even the treatment of the Rolling Stone drama as just a failure of journalism—Columbia offered an "anatomy of a journalistic failure"—feels insufficient. Yes, its writers and editors messed up royally (and still are, by refusing to make any significant changes to their staff or editorial processes.) But that terrible article arose out of a moral swamp that still festers even following the article's retraction. It spoke to and reflected and sought to capture one of the most hysterical panics of our time: the idea that largely middle-class women at some of the best universities in the United States are stalked by danger, hunted by rapists, threatened by a foul, free-floating culture of violation.

It's this madness that we must now challenge. And it will require more than a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism dean to do that. It will require all of us picking apart victim feminism, advocacy research, the demonization of men (especially of the frat variety), the culture of misanthropy, and the modern urge to trash both due process and civil rights in the name of hunting down a new breed of Emmanuel Goldsteins: jocks, lads, college guys. All of these are the ingredients, not only of Erdely's sorry excuse for reporting, but also of the still extant, still profoundly damaging moral panic about rape.