Don't Confuse the Kavanaugh Gang Rape Accusation with the Rolling Stone Rape Hoax

Julie Swetnick's charge may well turn out to be untrue too, but there are some significant differences between her story and Jackie's.


Joshua Roberts/REUTERS/Newscom

Now that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is accused of not just attempted sexual assault and harassment but also of helping to organize a gang rape during his high school years, some people have asked whether the allegations called to mind the infamous University of Virginia gang rape hoax.

But the Kavanaugh accusations, while not totally solid in every way, are significantly more plausible than the story an anonymous victim, "Jackie," told to Rolling Stone in 2014.

Because I was an early skeptic of the UVA gang rape, a few people have asked me whether I am similarly skeptical of the Kavanaugh accusations. The journalist Richard Bradley—who expressed doubts about Jackie even before I did—has received the same queries. Like Bradley, I think there are important differences between what the Kavanaugh accusers—Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and now Julie Swetnick—have claimed and what Jackie claimed.

First, a refresher: Jackie's story, told only to Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdeley, on condition of anonymity, was that her date, an older male student at the University of Virginia, brought her to a fraternity party during the fall of her freshman year. This unidentified male—"Drew" in the story—lured her to a dark second-floor bedroom, where a group of men ambushed her. They knocked her through a glass table and viciously gang-raped her as the glass shards cut up her back. She passed out from the pain and blood loss, recovered consciousness hours later, and fled the room. Her friends told her not to go to the police, out of fear that this could impact their reputations.

Eventually, it turned out the whole story was a lie. "Drew" did not exist at all: Jackie had catfished her friends, and messages sent from Drew to other people were almost certainly sent by Jackie herself. The fraternity hosted no party on the night in question. And Jackie's friends contradicted her account when journalists reached out to them for comment (Erdeley had neglected to speak with them, instead trusting Jackie's memory of their comments).

Two details of the Rolling Stone story had struck me as false after I read it for a second time. For one thing, even a tiny cut from a shard of glass causes a person to bleed profusely; that people could roll around in glass for hours and survive the encounter beggared belief. For another—and this is relevant to the Kavanaugh accusation—Jackie claimed to be sober. The vast majority of campus sexual misconduct disputes involve alleged victims who were incapacitated by alcohol to some degree. Perpetrators rely on victims having a diminished ability to resist or be aware of what is happening. It was very hard for me to imagine a pre-planned fraternity gang rape that did not involve getting the victim drunk enough to make her next-day memory unreliable.

The Kavanaugh accusation is not as outlandish as this. (I'll just discuss Swetnick's claims in this article, since I've already written plenty about Ford's, and Ramirez's is less serious.) For one thing, Swetnick has chosen to out herself, in a sworn statement, which means her claims are more credible. (Jackie hid behind anonymity—and to this day has suffered little consequence for lying: No mainstream news outlet has chosen to name her, even though every journalist who has written about her case knows exactly who she is.) For another, Swetnick has accused a specific person: Kavanaugh. (Jackie refused to tell Erdeley her attacker's real name until after it was too late.)

Swetnick has alleged that Kavanaugh's circle of friends at Georgetown Prep hosted parties in which women were given copious amounts of alcohol, and possibly drinks spiked with sedatives. Swetnick has claimed, "I was drugged with Quaaludes or something similar [was] placed in what I was drinking."

Quaaludes, of course, are the sedatives Bill Cosby—who was sentenced just this week—used to incapacitate his victims so he could rape them. It's possible Swetnick is trying to link Kavanaugh with Cosby here, because even though the use of these drugs to incapacitate people are a real problem, some evidence suggests they aren't used nearly as often as people seem to think. Alcohol, voluntarily consumed, is by far the substance most commonly used to facilitate rape. Swetnick might sincerely think she was drugged, but lots of sexual assault victims have thought the same, when really alcohol was the culprit.

Swetnick has also claimed that the boys at the Georgetown Prep parties—including Kavanaugh—would line-up outside a room containing an incapacitated woman, "waiting for their turn" to rape her. This is a somewhat more difficult circumstance to accept on face value—would the men really just wait outside the door, in a manner that made it obvious they were patiently waiting for their opportunity to commit rape, in full view of other party attendees? Note that the most plausible of the allegations against Kavanaugh, the one made by Ford, involves no such thing: She claimed that Kavanaugh dragged her into a bedroom when she was away from the rest of the group, and attempted to rape her with just his close confidant, Mark Judge, watching. For Ford to be telling the truth, it only requires that Kavanaugh and Judge consumed tons of alcohol and made a spur-of-the-moment, terrible mistake. If Swetnick is telling the truth, a lot of people plotted to do something terrible, were content to make everyone else aware of what they were doing, and waited patiently to do it.

It's the premeditation aspect of Swetnick's story that most strongly resembles the UVa hoax. Fortunately—for the truth's sake, if not any one party's—Swetnick named names, and there should be other witnesses who can shed light on the truth of the matter.

In the meantime, it would be wrong to dismiss the allegation as beyond the realm of possibility. Given the number of people who have accused Kavanaugh and Judge of teen sexual misbehavior and serial alcoholism—misbehavior that Kavanaugh has denied completely, rather than claimed to not remember or at least acknowledged was not unheard of in his private school set—one would have to think that this is essentially a conspiracy to derail his nomination. At this point, I'm not sure conspiracy is the most plausible explanation. We shouldn't accept these accusations on blind faith, but it's starting to seem like blind faith is what Kavanaugh's defenders are requiring of us.