On Rolling Stone’s retraction of gang rape story: The devil has enough advocates

Recently a story about a University of Virginia student named Jackie and the brutal gang rape she suffered was published in Rolling Stone Magazine. Today, Rolling Stone issued a statement saying it was sorry that it mislead readers and that “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

You know what? There are discrepancies in my account of what I had for breakfast last Tuesday. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have breakfast.

I am in no place to judge the validity of anyone’s statements regarding this case – either Jackie’s statements or those of the fraternity brothers in question. However, there are a few things I do know to be true about rape and victims.

  1. Research clearly demonstrates that victims of trauma have difficulty reconstructing memories related to the traumatic events they experience. This is because during a traumatic event like sexual assault, the brain’s pre-frontal cortex – which relates to being able to recall specific memories – becomes temporarily impaired. Discrepancies aren’t necessarily lies – and should not be treated as such. For Rolling Stone to come out and say that they no longer trust Jackie without detailing why (and I know that other news organizations have now dug a little deeper) is irresponsible.
  2. Each survivor is different. Some survivors take years to fully understand the crime perpetrated against them. Some never understand it.
  3. The rate of false reporting on rape is low (between 2 and 8 percent), and comparable to all other violent crimes. This means that there are not lots of pretend rape victims out to get anyone.
  4. This story will be used to discredit survivor after survivor.
  5. This is why rape is the most underreported (and therefore the least convicted) crime in the United States.
  6. Campuses have serious issues when it comes effectively responding to sexual violence and we have a long way to go.

As was pointed out on Twitter following the Rolling Stone statement, “An error in an anecdote will completely obscure the reality of a trend.”

One news organization’s irresponsibility doesn’t mean that survivors lie – and in fact, it doesn’t mean that Jackie lied either. Don’t let a journalist’s error obscure the truth and the trends related to sexual violence.

Rape survivors struggle enough to be believed. The devil has enough advocates.

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