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Rolling Stone’s Rape Article Fiasco Will Happen Again


With Rolling Stone’s bombshell addendum to its rape story, in which the magazine confessed its “misplaced” trust in alleged rape victim Jackie, a University of Virginia student, many commentators pronounced the story as “unraveling.” I do not know if the word “unraveling” is correct; at the time of this writing all that anyone knows is that the case is less certain than it’s ever been, and that everyone involved appears to have lawyered up. The story might be unraveling or it might not, but at the very least it is confusing, upsetting, and bizarre.

It is also a prime example of the great flaw in our modern discourse on rape. This discourse, taken over as it has been by radical feminists with plenty of axes to grind, demands that we accept rape victims’ stories uncritically and unreservedly, with little to no eye to determining the true facts of the matter. We have become so swept up in this post-evidential methodology that the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, felt no need to speak directly with the alleged rapists or even learn any of their names; because of the “sensitive nature” of the story, everyone involved believed they could leave out half of the story altogether. This is why they’ve ended up in the mess they are in, and inarguably they deserve every bit of the fallout that is to come.

Truth Is Important, Remember?

Yet their sloppy journalistic vanity is only evidence of the problem; the way we discuss rape these days is deeply flawed and will inevitably lead to these kind of disasters. Indeed, perhaps some good will come out of Rolling Stone’s comically inept handling of these explosive rape chargers, at least insofar as it may change our national discourse on rape to something more intelligent and, frankly, sane. Criticizing Rolling Stone for its “slipshod job” at vetting the facts of Jackie’s rape story, Emily Renda, UVA’s “project coordinator for sexual misconduct, policy and prevention, and a member of the governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence,” said, according to the Associated Press: “she didn’t question Jackie’s credibility because that wasn’t her role.”

Got that? The “project coordinator” for the University of Virginia’s anti-rape apparatus, and an employee of a governor’s “task force” on the matter to boot, felt that it “wasn’t her role” to figure out if an alleged rape victim’s story was credible. If determining whether or not a rape happened isn’t the job of someone with Renda’s credentials, whose job was it? Apparently it was Rolling Stone’s—but they didn’t feel that it was their business, either, convinced as they were that the matter was too “sensitive” to check out themselves. Up and down the ladder, every step of the way, everyone involved blew off his or her responsibility to determine the truth in favor of feel-good rhetoric and journalistic cowardice. Nobody cared whether Jackie was trustworthy. It was nobody’s role to figure it out. So nobody did.

Crimes Should Be Proven, then Denounced

Rolling Stone’s partial retraction sent many in the media scrambling to point out: even if Jackie’s story is untrue, it doesn’t detract from the persistent problem of widespread campus rape. Some took it further: Zerlina Maxwell declared in the Washington Post: No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims.” The headline was quickly edited to read: “…generally believe rape claims,” but in any event Maxwell herself still maintains the point: “We should believe,” she writes, “as a matter of default, what an accuser says.” Maybe we should and maybe we shouldn’t. But then again, that’s what Emily Renda did. And Sabrina Rubin Erdely. And Rolling Stone. And Jezebel.  And thousands if not hundreds of thousands of other people. Everyone believed Jackie automatically.

If a woman claims she’s been raped, we should offer her our support, our trust, and our tireless advocacy. We should not, however, throw ourselves headlong into full-fledged and unequivocal belief.

When someone finally started asking a few simple questions, and found out the story wasn’t as simple as it was presented to us, pundits like Maxwell pronounced: it doesn’t matter. Suspend any and all judgment. Believe automatically.  “The time we spend picking apart a traumatized survivor’s narration on the hunt for discrepancies,” Maxwell says, “is time that should be spent punishing serial rapists.” Yet that’s what everyone did in this case: nobody picked apart, everyone wanted to punish. Then when it came to light that everyone involved took the most boneheaded approach to this matter, Maxwell pronounced: “That was fun. Let’s do it again.”

We are going about this wrong. Rape is a terrible, brutal, inhuman crime. It is not a supernatural event that demands we toss out our standards of evidence, rationality, and level-headed inquiry. It remains to be seen just what will happen with this case: it may be that Jackie will be vindicated in the end, that she’ll be exposed as a total liar, or that she was partly lying and partly telling the truth. But we would not be here, scrambling for evidence after the verdict had already been announced, with countless people humiliated and embarrassed and perhaps a few professionally ruined, if the concerned parties had taken the proper steps to sort through the facts and the testimony before going to press.

If a woman claims she’s been raped, we should offer her our support, our trust, and our tireless advocacy. We should not, however, suspend all of our doubts and throw ourselves headlong into full-fledged and unequivocal belief—any more than we would for any other reported crime. The genuinely responsible thing to do is to discover the truth; it’s not to accept one person’s testimony with no reservations whatsoever. Nothing is that certain, as Rolling Stone and Erdely are now painfully discovering.