I don’t remember what I was wearing when I got sexually assaulted my freshman year, but I do remember what I wore when I figured out what had happened. It was the autumn of 2008, and I had just left a sorority house, where I had given a lecture on consent, safe sex, and best practices for helping friends who have been raped. Jacob,* a handsome, popular guy I had avoided for years, strode up to me. I was wearing a teal T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the University of Virginia’s sexual assault crisis center.
“Isn’t this funny that this is who you are now?” Jacob said, his grin widening as he tapped the insignia on my breast. “Robert* and I still talk about that night.” The next thing I remember, I was shaking and crying on my bed, awash with a feeling I’ve never been able to name. Everything I had explained away for the last two years came rushing back: being held down, Jacob’s whisper of “No one is going to believe you” before mercifully being interrupted, the mental calculus I did that somehow equated the whole thing with a gigantic misunderstanding.
When I read Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone last year—before her reporting came into question, before the Columbia report—I wrote on Facebook that as a sexual assault survivor from UVA, “I can tell you this is absolutely accurate from start to finish.”
I felt empathetic toward Jackie and unsurprised about the social and bureaucratic callousness that met her in the aftermath of her brutal assault. I’d noticed some inconsistencies even before others started to doubt the fact, but the story still had the ring of truth for me as a writer, a survivor and a UVA alumna. When I started to talk about my own assault while still in college, the first people I told waved it away, citing the resumes of the two perpetrators and the social consequences of bringing it up. After that, I kept it to myself.
I treasure my time in Charlottesville and received a top-flight education at the University of Virginia, but I’m clear-eyed about its faults—even after Jackie’s account turned out to be unsubstantiated. Devotion to an antiquated notion of honor, a hard-drinking social scene, and an obsession with crafting a smooth façade of progressive achievement create the ideal environs for glossing over unpleasant incidents. Sexual violence is nothing if not unpleasant, and no one wants to consider the notion that one well-liked, accomplished peer might be capable of harming another. It’s easier to pretend that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, making it hard to find an ally after deciding to look for help and understanding.
On my first day of training to work on the rape crisis hotline, I was taught to accept confusing stories as fact. They told me to ask for clarification if I struggled to reconcile details, but I had to learn to let the person on the other end of the line fill in their own blanks. My job was and is to listen to people re-live trauma and believe them unquestioningly and unflinchingly. It’s a job I’ve done for countless friends, family members and strangers over the last decade, and I keep a well-worn folder of resources, phone numbers and pamphlets in the top drawer of my desk. You’d be surprised how often I use it.
The brain often protects you from horrific experiences, sometimes excising the worst parts from your memory with surgical precision. This defense mechanism means many survivors’ stories are replete with long gaps and meandering timelines (though it bears repeating that one can substantiate their stories at least 92 percent of the time). An advocate is often the only person a survivor knows who can set aside reservations and listen without judgment. A survivor’s right to that kind of unconditional support is sacrosanct.
I’m grateful to the woman who finally let me tell my broken, fuzzy story in its entirety, even though it took a dozen false starts and cry breaks. It was only then that I was able to separate fact from fiction and call that incident what it was—an attempted rape—and get the care that allowed me to move on. Every survivor deserves the compassion she showed me. I have my own theories about what happened to Jackie, but if she had come to me, I would have tried to give her exactly that. I would have listened to her and believed her just like Erdely did.
But Erdely is not an advocate. She’s a journalist—one who is advocating for social change, but a journalist nonetheless. Her job, and the job of her editors, is to wade through all the irrelevant asides and tell a concise story. That means that you have to double-check every cruel detail, even when that makes you unpopular with your subject, and even when that means scrapping a major investigation for a national magazine. You have to be prepared for turbulence when you’re reporting on sex crimes in a world that thinks vindictive women lie about rape when they don’t get a second date and assault only happens in dark alley when you’re walking alone. To behave in any other fashion furthers those lies and does a grave disservice to the millions of men and women who have survived sexual violence.
Believe me: There were plenty of other stories at the University of Virginia that Erdely could have told.
I’m not talking about near misses, or “gray areas,” or he-said/she-said incidents people love to dismiss. I’m talking about certifiable, horrific facts featuring frat brothers and roofies and missing clothing. Stories with the sensational violence Erdely was looking for when she set out to write “A Rape on Campus.” If a graphic account of a premeditated gang rape was what she felt would get people to care, she could have found a more reliable story to tell. I can think of several. By choosing not to verify Jackie’s story despite having the time and resources to do so, Rolling Stone has given rape apologists ample ammunition. You shouldn’t have to preface your own experience with, “What happened to me wasn’t as bad as Jackie, but…” in order for it to matter. But now you do, and the plausibility bar is that much higher.
When a someone agrees to tell his or her story, you must tell them you’re going to ask questions they don’t like. Let them walk away from the story if they aren’t prepared for how ugly and thorough the reporting can be. They need to know that you can’t shield them from the painful necessity of verification on account of the living hell they’ve walked through. It doesn’t feel good to cast aspersion on a trauma victim, but it’s not the survivor’s job to be able to craft a perfect, linear plot—it’s yours. As a journalist, you are not their friend, and you are not their advocate. That is someone else’s job, and you can’t lose sight of that for a minute.
When I read the Columbia Journalism School’s report earlier this week, I tweeted that I couldn’t “begin to enumerate the bullet points of my rage,” but I’m going to try now. Rolling Stone’s initial non-apology opted to blame Jackie rather than their own shoddy work, and publisher Jann Wenner is still doing that. Editor Sean Woods said in the report that he approved using pseudonyms for Jackie’s friends because he “he didn’t want to embarrass the three students by having Jackie’s account of their self-involved patter out there for all their friends and classmates to see,” even though all three of those students have now spoken on the record about that night in 2012.
It’s never been clearer that none of Rolling Stone’s actions helped create meaningful change for survivors of campus sexual assault; instead, it shifted blame to protect their falsified report. In her apology issued Sunday, Erdely says she hopes her “mistakes” don’t “silence the voices of victims that need to be heard,” but that’s exactly what she’s done. The Columbia Journalism Review speculates that Rolling Stone’s “failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.” A cursory look around the Internet this week will tell you it has. We’re not back where we started—this is negative progress.
I do not accept Erdely’s apology and neither should you. Erdely says she allowed her “concern for Jackie’s well-being…fear of re-traumatizing her, and…confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts” and that she won’t make these mistakes again, but it’s too late for a nicely-worded mea culpa. When Rolling Stone decided to “go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence,” they contributed to the environment that allowed my assailant to walk up to me in a crowded public space and joke about trying to rape me. Erdely’s self-serving actions, and those of her editors, let college administrators, fraternities and police departments go back to pretending that sexual violence isn’t a problem. I’m sorry, but “sorry” isn’t good enough.
*not their real names
Kirsten Schofield is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, the Hairpin, Paste, and other web and print publications. You can reach her on Twitter: @ennuigo