After months of anticipation, Rolling Stone has finally released a critical examination, performed by a team assembled at the Columbia School of Journalism, on all the journalistic failures regarding a December story on the problem of rape on campus at the University of Virginia. While the original story, “A Rape On Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, reported on multiple rapes on campus, the centerpiece of her story, an alleged gang rape of a girl named “Jackie” at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, came under special scrutiny.
This report doesn’t have much new to offer on Jackie’s story that hasn’t been dug up by other reporters and by the local police: that her friends dispute her version of events, that there wasn’t even a party at Phi Kappa Psi that night, that Erdely didn’t perform her due diligence in investigating the details that Jackie provided her. But the report is thorough, and it’s a great boon to have all the information in one place.
One thing that’s very clear: The culture warriors who were sharpening their knives, eager to use this debacle as a pretext to make the discussion over campus rape about the extremely rare problem of “false accusation,” will be disappointed. Columbia’s investigators, Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz don’t give succor to anti-feminists claiming false accusations are common, writing, “the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations,” and noting that the false report rate on rapes is low, between 2 and 8 percent.
But more than that, what this report makes clear is that “Jackie” makes a piss-poor poster girl for the anti-feminist claim that many rape accusations are nothing more than a woman lashing out at a specific man in retaliation for rejection or some other perceived mistreatment. Because, whatever else she has going on, this report completely eliminates the possibility that it’s a “woman scorned” scenario.
Not only did Jackie not hand a specific man over to the authorities, but the report suggests that “Drew,” the ringleader of the gang rape Jackie describes, may be a fictional character. (Jackie described him as both a member of Phi Kappa Psi and a lifeguard at the Aquatic and Fitness Center. No such person fitting this description exists.) Instead of trying to bring her supposed rapist to justice, Jackie did everything in her power to stonewall any attempt to find him. When Erdely started to push to find out more about him, the investigators report that “Jackie stopped responding to Erdely’s calls and messages.” The silent treatment worked and Erdely capitulated, agreeing not to try to find out anything about this man, at which point Jackie “now chatted freely.”
Jackie has ceased talking to the press—which is just as well, because, as investigators found, she seems to have snookered the Washington Post as well, telling them she tried to get Erdely to retract her story when there’s no evidence that she did—so there’s no way to know what the hell is going on with her. But her behavior is consistent with what experts in the field have reported regarding false rape reports, which is that they are rarely accusations.
“[V]ictims who fabricate a sexual assault report may not want anyone to actually be arrested for the fictional crime,” explain researchers for a report for the National Center for Prosecution of Violence Against Women. “Therefore, they may say that they were sexually assaulted by a stranger or an acquaintance who is only vaguely described and not identified by name.” This makes perfect sense. Fabulists generally do it for sympathy and attention, not because they want anyone to get into trouble. Not to mention that falsely accusing a specific man makes it that much more likely you’re going to be found out.
This matters, because anti-feminists are surely going to use this story to cast doubts on rape accusations that have nothing to do with this situation. Andrea Tantaros of Fox News has already tried, using this story to argue that the attention paid to the campus rape issue is “a war happening on boys on these college campuses” and that the accused “no opportunity to confront witnesses and to present a defense.” But how could “Drew,” who appears to be a fictional character, have defended himself? And why would he need to, as “Jackie” never reported this rape in the first place?
Jackie’s apparent lying will certainly be used against future accusers, who accuse specific men of specific crimes. But that is comparing apples to oranges. We have a story about a woman who probably made things up to get attention and sympathy. That doesn’t prove the widespread allegation that women routinely redefine consensual sex as rape to get revenge.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.