Well, this is awful.
The Web blew up Friday afternoon with the news that Rolling Stone magazine no longer stands behind last month’s horrific, explosive story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. A report in The Washington Post cast central elements of her story into serious doubt. Her friends and supporters now say they’re dubious, too.
It’s disastrous for everybody involved. At this writing, the victim, Jackie, insists she was telling the truth about being raped by seven students. Whatever the truth, she must be in a world of pain right now, particularly if she tried to extricate herself from the magazine story before it was published, as she now maintains.
The destructive fallout goes beyond one woman’s suffering. The Rolling Stone story, which had helped make it all but impossible to ignore the scourge of campus sexual assault, is now going to do the opposite. Because now, emboldened by this one possibly fabricated story of rape, the chorus of people who believe women routinely make these things up will grow louder.
It already has. You could see them doing their happy dances in the comments below the Post story, which, a couple of hours after it went up, looked a lot like 1950. If it turns out to be entirely false, Jackie’s story will join other fake narratives — the Tawana Brawley debacle, the accusations against the Duke lacrosse players — as weapons for those moral cave-dwellers who would have you believe that women “cry rape” all the time for attention, or revenge.
“No matter what the reality is, there is going to be the perception out there now that women lie about rape,” says Djuna Perkins, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney who investigates student sexual misconduct cases. “Every time somebody makes up a terrible crime, it does harm to the rest who tell the truth and don’t get believed.”
That sucking sound? That’s us being dragged back into the last century.
Can we please not go there? Jackie’s story might not be real, but a bigger one is. One in five women say they have been raped. One in 20 say they have experienced other forms of sexual violence. About 19 percent of undergrads say they experienced rape or attempted rape. In a fall survey of MIT students, one in six of the women who responded said they’d been sexually assaulted, but only 5 percent had reported it. It is everywhere, including at august New England universities.
Even without Jackie’s story, there is plenty in the Rolling Stone story to alarm: UVA is one of scores of schools being investigated by the federal government — and one of 12 receiving extra scrutiny — for its handling of sexual assaults. Other UVA students described their own rapes in the article, and the alarming unresponsiveness of school officials who seemed more concerned with the college’s reputation than with student safety.
Maybe all of these people are lying, too, you and Bill Cosby might argue. No. Various studies show false rape report rates ranging from 2 to 8 percent. There are no more fabricated reports of rapes than of other crimes, says Toni Troop of Jane Doe Inc., as much as some would like to believe otherwise.
“People don’t want to believe rape happens in the first place,” says Troop, whose job just got harder.
We are finally beginning to talk constructively about rape and its mind-blowing frequency. We are finally starting to blame those who commit it, rather than focusing on the character, demeanor, and clothing of victims. We have way more work to do, including coming up with ways to deal with campus sexual assault that protect all students.
We can’t afford to back off because of one big lie and some woefully inadequate journalism. Campus rape is as real as a case like Jackie’s is rare.
If only it were the other way around.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.