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The UVA Story Unravels: Feminist Agitprop and Rape-Hoax Denialism

The UVA Story Unravels: Feminist Agitprop and Rape-Hoax Denialism

By Cathy Young - December 8, 2014

We will almost certainly never know for sure what actually happened to Jackie, the troubled young woman at the center of the now-discredited Rolling Stone tale of rape and impunity at the University of Virginia that riveted the nation for two weeks before it came apart. She may be a mentally ill fantasist; she may have experienced a less brutal sexual assault and either deliberately exaggerated or sincerely reimagined it as the grotesque horror she recounted to writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely; she may have suffered some other trauma. Many fear that the story’s undoing may hurt the credibility of real rape victims, and one can only hope that doesn’t happen. But the UVA fiasco should destroy the credibility of the feminist crusade against “rape culture,” whose virulent zealotry and disregard for truth have been starkly exposed by this scandal.

The uncritical rush to embrace of Rolling Stone story attests to the toxic climate created by this crusade. Erdely’s article should have quickly set off alarm bells (mine went off on the second reading). The preplanned initiation-ritual gang rape in which “Clockwork Orange”-level ultraviolence meets “Silence of the Lambs” (“Grab its motherf-----g leg,” yells one of the men); the reaction of the victim’s friends who see her disheveled and bloodied yet talk her out of going to the police or to the hospital because being “the girl who cried rape” would carry a social stigma; the nonchalance of the frat boy who casually chats her up shortly after engineering the attack—it all seems highly implausible, reading more like a rape-culture morality tale than a factual account. And that’s not even to mention the fact that Jackie supposedly endured three hours of rape while lying on sharp shards of glass from a smashed coffee table; or that later, when she had become an anti-rape activist on campus, a man supposedly threw a beer bottle at her as she walked past a bar and it broke on the side of her face but left only a bruise.

When critical scrutiny finally began, much of it focused on Erdely’s failure to even attempt to contact any of the alleged rapists for their side of the story (a subject on which she was peculiarly evasive in interviews). Yet the story was riddled with other problems.

For instance: It was fairly clear that Erdely had not interviewed any of the three friends, two men and one woman, who had allegedly picked up a bruised, blood-spattered, hysterical Jackie after the gang rape. She wrote that one of them refused an interview, “citing loyalty to his own frat” (a rather baffling explanation, as noted by Worth editor-in-chief Richard Bradley, the first journalist to publicly question the Rolling Stone account). But what about the other two?

Erdely did quote one of Jackie’s suitemates that semester, Rachel Soltis, who described her as growing depressed and withdrawn after the alleged incident. But there was a crucial piece of missing information: did Soltis see any of Jackie’s injuries, including cuts from the glass and presumably hard-to-conceal bruising from being punched in the face?

Thanks to real reporting by The Washington Post, we now know Soltis noticed no injuries on Jackie. We also know that one of Jackie’s three ex-friends confirms they came to her aid after a distress call; but he says that she was uninjured, and that at the time she claimed to have been “forced to have oral sex with a group of men” at a fraternity party. (Is that what really happened? Again, at this point it’s unlikely we’ll ever know.) He also says she was the one who refused offers of help.

That, by the way, highlights another huge and obvious problem with the Rolling Stone article. The story was presented as an account not only of rape, but of justice denied. The subhead read, “Jackie was just starting her freshman year at the University of Virginia when she was brutally assaulted by seven men at a frat party. When she tried to hold them accountable, a whole new kind of abuse began.” Yet the narrative itself makes clear that even in her own telling, Jackie never tried to hold anyone accountable. She never went to the police and waited more than six months to report the alleged attack to UVA’s dean for sexual misconduct, Nicole Eramo. She was informed of several options that included filing a police report and initiating a disciplinary complaint, but chose to do nothing—despite a follow-up email from the dean, offering assistance “if you decide that you would like to hold these men accountable.” Even more incredibly, we’re told that Jackie went back to Dean Eramo a year later to share that she had learned of two other women being raped at the same fraternity—but still “didn’t feel ready to file a complaint.”

This aspect of the story was consistently downplayed in the outcry over the Rolling Stone article. Indeed, Anna Merlan of the feminist blog Jezebel asserted, in her first post on the story, that Jackie was “discouraged from reporting the rape by both her friends and the school.” (Merlan later heaped scorn on the heretics who questioned the story, namely Bradley and Reason’s Robby Soave; she at least had enough class to apologize when it unraveled, though not enough to refrain from a snarky tweet dismissing Soave’s assertion that he was sincerely glad this terrible crime hadn’t happened.)

Even if people were initially swept up in the story’s emotion and in Erdely’s dramatic narration, their critical faculties should have kicked back in once Bradley and other skeptics such as began to raise uncomfortable questions—and feminists such as Slate’s Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt began to voice concern about Erdely’s shoddy reporting. Instead, the New York Times tried to circle the wagons, finding a couple of journalism professors who were willing to defending Rolling Stone’s methods. And the feminist media set about shooting the messenger. On Twitter, Amanda Marcotte blasted “rape apologists” attempting to “derail” the conversation with their talk of a hoax at UVA and asserted that Erdely’s story would have been attacked no matter how thorough a job she had done. (She even not-so-subtly insinuated that the “rape denialist movement” is driven by men who are themselves rapists.) The same themes were echoed in a rant by Katie McDonough in Salon, who grudgingly acknowledged that Erdely’s article was flawed but still denounced the criticism as “rape denial” and expressed resentment at “being expected to treat every person who says hey no fair when a survivor speaks or a damning report is published as if these are all serious and credible concerns.” On a slightly more moderate note, New York’s Kate Stoeffel fretted that all the questioning feels like “presumed innocence is a privilege reserved for purported rapists and not their purported victims” and asked, “To what end are we scrutinizing?”

That was before the Post debunked the story and Rolling Stone disowned it. And after that? Well, there’s this tweet from Marcotte: “Interesting how rape apologists think that if they can ‘discredit’ one rape story, that means no other rape stories can be true, either.” Needless to say, she does not give an example of a single person who believes that rape never happens.

As the quotation marks indicate, Marcotte does not actually believe Jackie is discredited. Appearing on HuffPost Live, both she and fellow writer/activist Soraya Chemaly pushed the idea that the “discrepancies” in her story—including the fact that the man she named as the chief rapist had never been in Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where the gang rape allegedly took place—were due to trauma-related memory loss and that Jackie may have been raped at a different frat. (Never mind that she was apparently emphatic about the specific fraternity, or that her claim of learning about more sexual assaults at the same frat is a key part of the story.) It seems that, in an attempt to deny the UVA rape hoax and exonerate Jackie of lying, some feminists are willing to suggest that women’s true accounts of sexual victimization are inherently unreliable. Talk about throwing victims under the bus.

The argument that Jackie’s unreliable accounts of her rape are the natural result of trauma is echoed in The Washington Post by lawyer and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell—even though the article she cites on trauma and memory suggests that intrusive memories, not massive memory distortion, are the most likely effect. Maxwell also wants all reports of rape to be treated as presumptively true, though maybe not in an actual court of law. And in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti goes so far as to declare, “I choose to believe Jackie.” This is feminism as a religious cult, embracing the principle of early Church father Tertullian: “Credo quia absurdum”—I believe because it’s absurd.

Some other feminists are quite openly suggesting that we shouldn’t let facts get in the way. “So what if this instance was more fictional than fact and didn't actually happen to Jackie? Do we actually want anyone to have gone through this? This story was a shock and awe campaign that forced even the most ardent of rape culture deniers to stand up in horror and demand action,” writes Katie Racine, the founder of the online women’s magazine Literally, Darling, in an essay reprinted in The Huffington Post. (A mostly fictional story is beneficial because it proved to “rape culture deniers” that rape culture exists? Literally, darling, this may be the dumbest thing anyone has said about the UVA story.) And in Politico, UVA student journalist Julia Horowitz opines that “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake,” since Jackie’s likely fabrication points to a bigger truth. That is not journalism; it’s agitprop.

And what is that bigger truth? Horowitz quotes a first-year student who says, “These events undoubtedly do occur here.” What events? Premeditated ambush gang rapes and beatings that are dismissed as trivial “bad experiences” by other students despite leaving the victims bloodied and battered, and are brushed aside by complacent administrators? That’s extremely doubtful.

Horowitz asserts that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college years. Mother Jones invokes the same one-in-five statistic as the deeper truth behind the Rolling Stone story. Yet the surveys from which this number is derived routinely conflate regretted drunk sex with sexual assault, and most of the women labeled as victims do not believe they were raped. As Mother Jones’ own infographics show, the primary reasons these women don’t report their purported assaults to the police or other authorities is that they don’t think it was a serious enough matter to report, or believe that they were at least partly responsible for the unwanted sex, or don’t think what happened was a crime.

Yes, rape happens—on campuses and elsewhere. Methodologically sound surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics have found that from 1995 to 2002, an average of about six per 1,000 female college students a year became victims of sexual assault. Assuming that a woman’s risk of being assaulted is the same in every year of college, that means two to three percent of female students become victims over the course of their school years. That’s nothing to be dismissive about. But it is hardly an epidemic, or a pervasive “culture of rape.”

Let us by all means have victim advocacy—fact-based, and capable of supporting women or men who report sexual assaults without trying to destroy the presumption of innocence. But let’s say no to the witch-hunts. If the UVA debacle brings back some sanity on the subject of rape, the hoax will have actually served a good cause—just not the one its promoters intended. 

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Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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