Last November, Rolling Stone published a now-redacted story by award-winning journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely that quickly went viral. Titled "A Rape On Campus," the article followed a University of Virginia student named "Jackie," who alleged she was raped by a group of men during a fraternity party in the fall of 2012.
Before long, however, multiple outlets and researchers were finding holes in the story, which eventually led to an investigation not only of the rape itself, but also into how Rolling Stone reported on the event.
According to the now released Columbia Journalism Review report of the magazine's coverage, Erdely had written in her notes that she was "searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now...'"
This hunt for a 'single, emblematic college rape case' is where Erdely and Rolling Stone seem to have made their first mistake.
As a society, we're obsessed with violence, drama and action, and therefore, sexual crimes are often depicted as gang rapes, or someone jumping out of the bushes to attack an unsuspecting woman. But every 107 seconds, someone in the US is sexually assaulted, so while extreme cases of violence like that described in the RS account do occur, statistically they can't be the norm.
On March 23, the Charlottesville police department closed the investigation after determining that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the assault did indeed take place. “There is no substantive basis to conclude that what was reported in that article happened,” Police Chief Timothy Longo said at a press conference last month. “That doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie.”
But the story doesn't end there. Rolling Stone's assertion that an 'emblematic' story about sexual assault existed in the first place may have unintentionally started a conversation that's bigger than the controversy itself.
Every Sexual Assault Is Different
So what exactly was Rolling Stone looking for when they decided to cover an 'emblematic' college rape case?
"The multiple perpetrator assault on college campuses is something we hear on a regular basis on our national hotline," Jennifer Marsh, the Vice President of Victim Services at RAINN told MTV News on Monday (April 6). "The UVA story wasn’t sensational to us, as we hear those types of descriptions on a weekly basis -- but they don't represent the majority of survivor's experiences."
The majority of survivors experience sexual assault in more nuanced and confusing ways, which makes perpetuating the idea that sexual assault can have an 'emblematic,' or 'representative' instance reductive and harmful not only for past and future female survivors, but also for young men.
"People see these crimes on a spectrum, and don't realize that the impact is all relative and sexual crimes are relative," said Marsh. "A lot of what we hear on the RAINN hotline is survivors who are questioning their experiences, doubting themselves, and asking if it was wrong or a crime because there wasn’t physical violence. One of the efforts were trying to make as an organization is to explain that just because you didn’t physically fight back, scream, or have injuries doesn't mean that it wasn't an assault."
If we can only picture sexual assaults as graphic and violent, we miss the opportunity to talk about the fact that two-thirds of assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows, and we tell survivors and bystanders that if you or a friend didn't experience or participate in a severely violent or graphic assault, then you are not actually victim or a perpetrator. In order to change this, it's vital to start telling the whole story.
Bravely Speaking Up And Listening
Ultimately, defining sexual assault is a responsibility best left to the survivor and his or her counselors. However, the long-standing climate of distrust toward survivors can create situations where coming forward is often more frightening than staying silent.
Dr. Jennifer Messina is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in sexual assault and trauma. She sees Jackie's case as a bold example of the challenges -- both internal and external -- survivors face when they're thinking about reporting their assaults.
"Most people who have been assaulted never tell anybody, and many assaults go unacknowledged to the survivors themselves," Dr. Messina told MTV News. "Whenever something public like this happens, it confirms how astounding it is that anyone would publicly discuss their assaults."
"There is obviously a huge opportunity here to highlight the broader challenges that victims have coming forward," she continued. "The system often re-traumatizes victims who do come forward. This not only discourages others from reporting but it [also] has major implications for recovery."
Dr. Messina offers a solution that is neither radical or difficult. "We need to create environments where survivors can say they've been assaulted, and not have that detail define them."
Time To Start Believing 'That Girl'
At this point, what has happened to UVA's Jackie is more than just her alleged assault. She has been called a "fabulist storyteller" by Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone. The friends Jackie identified when she spoke to Erdely told the Columbia Journalism Review that they never said they wouldn't talk to the press, and they believe Jackie fabricated portions of her story.
Since November, Jackie herself has refused to comment to any reporter, speak to The Columbia Journalism Review, or talk to law enforcement at her lawyer's suggestion.
Jackie's original fear, which she relayed to Erdely, was that if she came forward about her assault, she'd earn the reputation of "the girl who cried rape." Sadly, no matter how you look at this story, her fear has come true.
"The fear of being 'that girl' stops people from coming forward," says Marsh. "There are a lot of things people do to survivors when they come forward, usually starting with a series of questions: 'Why were you there?' 'Why did you drink that much?' It’s important for friends, family, coaches, teachers, professors, to know that if someone comes to you and discloses, the first thing you should do is believe them. You are not a detective, and it’s not your function to get to the bottom of the story. It's your job to help that individual and supply them with resources."
The Whole Country Is Talking
Perhaps Rolling Stone's interest in covering campus sexual assault speaks to something bigger and, ultimately, beneficial for all of us. Now, more than ever, people are talking about sexual assault, and looking for ways we can lower that horrifying 1 in 5 number---including asking survivors to tell their own stories. Solving this issue is no longer the responsibility of a few college activists -- it has become a national conversation and a White House initiative.
Furthermore, celebs like Madonna and Lady Gaga have come forward and shared their experiences. Resources for survivors have never been more readily available, and documentaries like "The Hunting Ground" permeate the national conscience. There are still some people who will doubt and blame survivors, but there are even more people who support them, and stand with them in solidarity.
"One of the things that is important to keep in mind, is that we don't have a lot of evidence that sexual assaults are increasing," said Dr. Messina. "What we do have is a new focus on sexual assaults and awareness of it, and what we know for sure is that there are countless extraordinarily successful women who have overcome it."