The UVA Fiasco and 'Believe the Survivor' Syndrome

Those who tell troubling stories are not always victims


The inglorious saga of Rolling Stone's article on "rape culture" at the University of Virginia, "A Rape on Campus," published to great acclaim last November and mostly debunked less than three weeks later, has seen its (hopefully) final chapter: the Columbia Journalism Review postmortem dissecting the story and its origins.  The report documents egregious failings by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely and multiple editors, including perfunctory fact-checking and reliance on a single source—the alleged victim, Jackie—for the central narrative of a brutal fraternity gang rape.

Rolling Stone, which commissioned and published the report, has come under fire for treating the fiasco as an isolated error rather than an institutional problem in need of a fix. The magazine's leadership has also been lambasted for not only shifting much of the blame to Jackie herself, but blaming the editorial decision to skip basic fact-checking on excessive deference to a young woman believed to be the victim of a horrific assault.  It is quite true that the explanation smacks of a self-serving excuse and that the shoddy journalism in the UVA rape story was part of a larger problem. But this problem is not confined to Rolling Stone. It is pervasive in media coverage of campus rape—and is very much connected to the belief, held by many anti-rape activists, that personal accounts of (alleged) sexual violence should be treated as sacrosanct.

Before the Rolling Stone story imploded but when Erdely was already being criticized for failing to seek comment from the alleged rapists, the left-of-center media monitoring site Media Matters pointed to several articles on campus rape in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate which also failed to meet that standard. But this is less a defense of Erdely—whose reporting, we now know, was indefensible—than an indictment of her colleagues.

Take the coverage of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, the internationally famous activist who carries her mattress on campus to protest the school's failure to expel the man she accuses of rape. When Sulkowicz was featured in a New York Times cover story last May, with a troubling story of a violent attack by a fellow student and a botched university investigation that ended with a ruling in the man's favor—despite two other accusations of sexual assault against him—her alleged assailant remained a nameless, faceless shadow menace. (One of the story's authors, Richard Pérez-Peña, later said he did not know the man's identity at the time.)

It was more than seven months later, in December—perhaps not coincidentally, after the collapse of the Rolling Stone story—that the Times gave Paul Nungesser, who had been identified by The Columbia Spectator several months earlier, a chance to tell his side. That was also the first time the paper disclosed that the multiple charges against him may not have been independently made: Sulkowicz and the other two women had been in contact and had talked to each other about their history with Nungesser prior to filing charges.

In February, a story I reported for The Daily Beast raised further questions, revealing that Sulkowicz had remained in close and friendly contact with Nungesser for three months after the alleged rape (as confirmed by Facebook messages). Advocates have countered that victims of sexual trauma may act in ways that seem irrational. Sulkowicz's messages don't necessarily exonerate Nungesser; but the new details certainly paint a far more complex picture than the early coverage suggested.

The willingness to treat uncorroborated narratives of victimization as fact may be partly due to sensationalism. But it also reflects a climate in which any suggestion that a woman who says she was raped may be lying is often treated as "victim-blaming" or "rape apology." Let's not forget that skeptics who questioned the Rolling Stone story before its unraveling were widely and viciously attacked as prejudiced against rape victims. Today, the feminist party line is that Rolling Stone let down sexual assault victims by not fact-checking Jackie's account; but back in December, it was that insisting on more scrutiny and corroboration of accounts of sexual assault would silence victims' voices.

Given the very real history of widespread ugly biases against women who reported sexual violence, the reluctance to accuse women of "crying rape" is understandable. But the assumption that "women don't lie" leads to an equally ugly bias. Yet the CJR report itself downplays the problem of false allegations, making the familiar claim that only 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are false. Using the same statistics, New York University professor Clay Shirky writes in The New Republic that Jackie is a rare aberration: "If someone says she was raped, she is almost certainly telling the truth."

In fact, this estimate is based on studies in which some eight percent of rape reports are proven to be groundless or fabricated—but the majority remain unresolved. If every sexual assault complaint that that can be neither substantiated nor disproved is treated as presumptively true, that is a textbook case of "presumed guilty" (at least when specific defendants are involved).

Despite its efforts to preserve the "rape culture" narrative, the CJR report is a valuable reminder of the dangers of allowing this narrative to shape reporting and override skepticism. So far, at least, the media have yet to learn these lessons from the Rolling Stone debacle. Just a few weeks ago, The Hunting Ground, a documentary on campus rape co-produced by CNN, was hailed as a "must-watch work of cine-activism," as "diligently researched," and (in Rolling Stone) "an energizing call to action." Yet, as Emily Yoffe persuasively argues in Slate, the film relies not only on debatable statistics but on moving personal testimonies with no hint of fact-checking. Its treatment of the charges against former Florida State quarterback Jamies Winston has been devastatingly critiqued by legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr.

In a Monday press conference, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism dean Steve Coll urged the media to "have a conversation" on better reporting on sexual violence—while dean of academic affairs Sheila Coronel called the Rolling Stone story a "useful case on how to report, with sensitivity, about victims of sexual assault while also verifying and corroborating the information they provide." This is sound advice. But the conversation must start with the uncomfortable fact that, as this story illustrates, those who tell such stories are not always victims.

This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

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  1. “…has seen its (hopefully) final chapter.”

    It’s definitely not the final chapter…there will still be a lawsuit.

    Which, I presume, is why Rolling Stone could not admit any wrongdoing or fire anyone, as that would indicate culpability.

    1. A public apology also indicates culpability

    2. What is the culpability? Wouldn’t the plaintiff need to prove that Rolling Stone KNEW they were printing falsehoods- or could they get by with showing that they didn’t take reasonable steps to verify the story?

      1. If you’re not a public figure, you don’t have to show malice (ie knowledge it’s wrong but publishing anyway) when suing for defamation, although quaere if any plaintiffs were actually insufficiently identifiable from the story

        1. Someone (Volokh, maybe?) suggests that the likeliest plaintiff, if they chose to pursue it, would be UVA.

          1. UVA cannot sue because by law government agencies cannot sue for defamation.

            Volokh said the best positioned plaintiffs are the fraternity rather then the members, and the UVA employees Erdely defamed.

            1. My bad; you’re right. I should have clarified.

          2. I would think the fraternity that the fake gangrape took place at would be a likely plaintiff as well. Also, the friends that allegedly told her not to report it because they were supposedly more concerned about not being invited to future frat parties have a pretty good defamation claim too.

            1. The friends have a lesser claim since they were not identified in the article. It was their choice to be named publicly later.

          3. Also UVa’s President, Teresa Sullivan was the chief cheerleader for the rape culture narrative. The Draconian restrictions she placed on fraternities after the story are still in place and she’s still in power. There’s no way UVa could claim harm.

      2. “Reckless disregard” for the truth will suffice but I’m sure RS will claim the fraternity is a public figure and therefore has to show actual malice. It’s a very high hurdle for a public figure. (If you’re repeating some juicy but entirely fictitious rumor about a public figure you don’t have to worry too much about whether or not the rumor has any basis in fact whatsoever, for a private party you need to be more careful to use “allegedly” and “some people say” and that sort of qualifier. It’s why everybody “knows” Tom Cruise and John Travolta and Hillary Clinton are gay and George Bush snorted cocaine off a dead hooker that he himself killed but those public figures would have a hard time suing anybody for defamation.)

        1. Reckless disregard for the truth is actual malice. New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). For private matters of private concern, damages can be presumed.

    3. Final chapter? How about a last nail? I didn’t read of this when it was originally posted, but it was sure good for a laugh when I got linked to it:

      In which @reason puts the last nail in their credibility coffin: Is the UVA Rape Story a Gigantic Hoax? http://bit.ly/1A7phcl –Jessica Valenti

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  2. Even using the 8% figure for false reporting…that’s about one in 12.

    293,066* x .08 = 23,445 potential Rolling Stone UVA stories per year.

    That’s a whole fucking lot more than just this one everybody is talking about.

    * According to RAINN/DOJ.

    1. Even if it were just a 2% false reporting rate that’s a lot of innocent men that the feminists are just fine with sacrificing to their god Moloch Social Justice.

      1. To be fair, I have not come across many police or prosecutors who could be considered “feminists”. The problem of improperly handled violent crime investigations encompasses people well outside left wing politics.

        1. Our criminal justice system remains one with fairly high standards of guilt. Even throughout all this, you still need to proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to receive criminal punishments.

          The problem isn’t with the police or prosecutors. Its with these attempts to prosecute outside of the criminal justice system by using media campaigns or university policies that only require only a “preponderance of evidence” to convict.

          We can’t really do anything about media campaigns other than plead for a less biased view, what with free speech and all that cool stuff. But we can do something about universities acting as the criminal justice system. I think there many feminists would fully agree. In fact I’ve had arguments with feminists where they claim the only reason universities get involved in the first place is to cover things up and prevent the police from investigating. Not only are these university trials unfair to the accused, they are conducted with an amateur approach that can easily allow the case to be botched. And of course there is a conflict of interest in that universities would like to be seen as safe places, which can cause them to be dismissive of actual cases. None of this justifies throwing out due process, but it helps to demonstrate something that should be obvious.

          These cases should be handled by the police. Period.

        2. But we hardly live in a culture where defending fair trials for male sex offenders is a popular position.

          Policy is supposed to keep police and prosecutors in check, to prevent them from hanging innocent people “just to be sure” or to keep a high conviction rate. Feminists have been successfully passing laws to do precisely the opposite: encourage prosecutors and police officers to abuse their authority in order to get those ubiquitous rapists. Law enforcers don’t need to be feminists for them to be agents of feminist policy. In fact, most law enforcers (I’ve known at least) are very ‘chivalrous’, and chivalry basically goes hand in hand with feminism more often than not, such as in the urge to hang a suspected rapist on the word of a woman without any corroborating evidence. So they don’t need feminists in police forces and prosecutor’s offices. They just need McCaskill and Warren up there on Capitol Hill making sure no one is scrutinizing the law enforcers while they do what, unfortunately, they do naturally when left unsupervised.

    2. Good point. Still, any statistics that seeks to use the outcome of police investigations and criminal hearimgs as arbiters of fact are intrinsically invalid. I have yet to see a police department compstat for a large metropolitan city that has even a closing rate higher than 50%. The police in this country are completely incompetent when iy comes to investigating violent crime.

      1. But isn’t it fair to assume that, of that 50%, an unacceptable share of innocents are convicted?

      2. The police in this country are completely incompetent when iy comes to investigating violent crime.

        Unlike crimes against the state, there are no fines or asset forfeitures when it comes to crimes with victims. So there’s no incentive to investigate. Why should they? What’s in it for them?

      3. Ever consider that maybe one reason they can’t close a higher percentage is because there isn’t actually sufficient evidence for a conviction in some of those cases? Maybe sometimes the suspect is, actually, like, not guilty?

        The absolute last message we should be sending to the Justice department is “you really aren’t sending enough people to prison.”

      4. Ever consider that maybe one reason they can’t close a higher percentage is because there isn’t actually sufficient evidence for a conviction in some of those cases? Maybe sometimes the suspect is, actually, like, not guilty?

        The absolute last message we should be sending to the Justice department is “you really aren’t sending enough people to prison.”

  3. True Story: I was involved in an online discussion of the UVA rape. The group has several SJWs from Virginia. After the CJR review was released, I asked if any had changed their minds about Jackie’s veracity. Unsurprisingly none had. Then I asked “What evidence would you have to be presented with in order to change your mind and accept that Jackie’s story is false?”. Only one answered, and she said “If Jackie herself came out and said that she lied. Otherwise her story is true.”
    Its an article of faith.

    1. And Jackie appeared before them and said, “I was rapethed.” and they saw she was the truth. The evil men took to discredit her, and did so rightly, but those exposed to her truth did not waiver in their faith, for Jackie was them.

    2. If Jackie herself came out and said that she lied

      then she was obviously forced to say that, so her story is *still* true.

      1. Undoubtedly that is what would happen.

    3. Its an article of faith.

      SJWs are some of the most fanatically religious people I’ve ever seen. The irony is that many of them don’t consider themselves to be, but they’re every bit as religious, perhaps even more so, than the most hardcore evengelical christian you’ll ever see.

      They’re really fucking pathetic.

    4. In other words, if she says she was raped by Abraham Lincoln, then we can only conclude that Honest Abe faked his own death and lived to be 150, and retained the physical capacity to rape.

      Seriously though, this shit makes the dumbest, most illiterate, bible thumping right wing redneck look like Max fucking Planck. Hat tip to the marketing genius who managed to sell the public the notion that the left was the side of the intellectuals.

  4. Don’t be so quick to judge victims. I myself, for example, was sexually molested by The Jacket – although anybody who doesn’t know The Jacket finds the story fantastically improbable – and still maintain a relationship with this site.
    (When I say “The Jacket” I don’t mean Nick, of course, it was the jacket itself. That thing may look like it’s made out of leather but, trust me, it’s half testosterone, half machismo and half raw animal magnetism. And it has a mind and a will of its own that cannot be resisted by mere mortals.Some people do not realize that it is not Nick who wears The Jacket, it is The Jacket who wears Nick.)

    1. Look, we all know you seduced the jacket for the sole intent of providing circumstances under which you could make such claims. It had a weak moment. The jacket will never let it happen again.

    2. I call BS. You’re just mad that the Jacket refused to answer your texts and unfriended you on Facebook.

      1. This.

        Clearly, Jerryskids was attacked by ManBearPig.

        1. See, this is why I don’t bother discussing the incident – nobody takes me cereal.

    3. The Jacket? Did you play Hotline:Miami?

  5. Q: People who are annoying

    A: “flaggers”

    Rhymes with “naggers”…

    1. *facepalm*

      Uh, yeah, wrong thread….

  6. The core problem that allowed Erdely and Rolling Stone to publish such yellow journalism is the ideology of victimhood among the “left”, which raises the (alleged) victim to god-like untouchable status.

    The “left” claims to have a critique of privilege, but they confer the most privileged status on (alleged) female victims of sexual assault (which is but a manifestation of the patriarchal assault on womanhood that has been ongoing since Paleolithic times), putting their tales beyond question or doubt, coddling them like infants and assigning them “nannies” to walk them through administrative hearings, protecting them from “triggers” such as academic discussions of the myth of “rape culture”, the rate of false rape allegations or the failure of feminism to achieve popular support.

    For the history of the shift of the Women’s Rights Movement from an egalitarian to a totalitarian one, see: When Progressive Social Change Becomes Regressive Ideology: From Women’s Liberation to Cultural Misandry

    For the backstory on the meme of “rape culture”, see: All Sex is Rape ? All Men are Rapists: Patriarchy = Rape Culture

  7. The necessity of proof lies with the person who makes the charge. This is one of the basic tenets of jurisprudence and philosophical inquiry in the Western world. Feminists and tyrants (who increasingly appear to be one in the same), are perpetually troubled by this idea. Forcing the accused/innocent to prove their innocence, not for the accuser to prove their guilt, or worse, making the accusation alone proof of one’s guilt.
    This is nothing new because, these are the same accusations that carried the day in days of feudalism, when a noblewoman’s “good word” that some man of lower status had molested her was sufficient to send armed killers after that low status man. More recently, in the 19th century, a black man could, and many did, die at the mere word of a white woman, claiming that some black man had raped.
    This problem is almost exclusively a Western one and most common among the same type women who founded the feminist movement: women of leisure, specifically, white women of leisure. Women who do not need to work hard, or in some instances, work at all, to survive. There are no female fisherman, or female factory workers, writing fanfiction in service to the feminist mythical cycle.
    The end goal for feminist to excise the cancer known as men from the university. Philosophically, it is to reinforce the idea that women, and by extension their accusations, are by some perverse assumptions, more moral than men and that their word alone is sufficient as proof.

  8. Gender traitor! Rape apologist! /DERP

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  10. I heard part of a TV interview this weekend with a woman who apparently was gang raped at a frat years ago who has found a disturbing number of similarities between her actual rape and Jackie’s fabrication. She stopped short of condemning Jackie publicly, saying only that she finds it hard to understand how someone could take someone else’s real horror and appropriate it as their own. She also said that Jackie’s lies should not diminish the knowledge that there is a true campus rape crisis. Seems a bit strained to me.

  11. Telling scary stories is the core of the progressive movement. Mencken said it all. It creates the issue, defines it, shows what needs to be done to mitigate it, and how freedom needs to be limited in order to keep the state in control. The precautionary principle is used to control technology, victim narratives are used to control human behavior, and the PC/hate speech concept is used to try to control thought-crime. One wonders how far it has to go before the supporters (the useful idiots) realize what sort of monster they have begot, and turn on it.

    1. One wonders how far it has to go before the supporters (the useful idiots) realize what sort of monster they have begot, and turn on it.

      Historically it usually works the other way. The monster turns on the supporters. See: Robespierre, guillotine.

  12. Liberalism is all about seeing oneself as a victim. Anything that interferes with that (such as exposing the facts, as opposed to dogma, about rape accusations) is emotionally unacceptable — a consequence of their infantile sense of emotional entitlement. (Sort of like Jim Taggart believing he was entitled to get whatever he wanted just because he felt that his sister did, and never mind the differences in what each did to earn it.)

  13. Little Jann Wenner, and his Little Matt….why, these are not only good people, they are actually better people than most.

    The glory and the joy of knowing Little Jann and Little Matt would be a holy experience. Even their fecal production is bottled and sold as an exotic elixir.

    Oh yes, Oh, yes.

  14. Stop telling people to have “conversations” about everything. Just stop it.

    You don’t need to have a conversation on whether 2 + 2 = 4. If a college student was falsely accused of rape and facts mostly exonerate him, then it can’t be used to advance conversations in which there a widespread rapes all over campus.

    Ellen Pao lied about being a victim of gender discrimination, but that too, somehow, is a conversation starter how the tech industry hates women.

    1. Clearly, when David Irving lied by claiming the Holocaust not happening, he still earned praise by stimulating a conversation on the matter.

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  16. As an observer from the other side of the pond, American public debate is often both fascinating and befuddling. The mere idea to have colleges evaluate sexual assault cases outside the justice system would be unthinkable in my home country, one of the most feminist in the world.

    Here is what confuses me: one of the successes of American feminism in recent decades has been to imprint in the public consciousness that many, in fact most, instances of sexual assault do not involve strangers or violence. In fact, in many cases the victims themselves would not see what happened as rape. That is good.

    Why in the WORLD would then the movement behind these changes pick, out of thousands of instances of sexual assault, not only pick a case that had not been tried, but pick one whose details, were they not so horrific, reads like a parody of what we imagine rape would have to be like to qualify as such in that dark, amorphous mass we call the patriarchal past? Even more befuddling is that not only RS not check even basic details, but a strong following continues to profess their faith in what is emerging as parodic fabulation.

    Can any reasonable person actually side with them? Is this not causing immense damage to the credibility of feminism in general? And are we not risking a backlash, creating ground for much more widespread skepticism about sexual assault charges?

    Perhaps someone can explain what I am missing here.

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