|University of Virginia|
If the problem were professors’ children being kidnapped and held for ransom, nobody would talk about the ability of universities to investigate and solve these cases. Nobody would demand they develop systems for better analyzing ransom notes. We would look to the police. Such crimes are their responsibility.
Yet when the crime is women being raped on campus, however, for some reason colleges themselves are expected to step in as surrogates for the cops, who are thought to be ... what? Too insensitive, too public, too something? I’ve never read an adequate explanation. Yes, police departments sometimes mishandle sexual assault, but given the ways schools routinely minimize, cover up and botch rape investigations, or fail to punish perpetrators when they do determine guilt, it’s hard to imagine how they could really do a worse job of it.
The University of Virginia became embroiled in scandal last month after publication of a Rolling Stone story about “Jackie,” a freshman who was raped, supposedly, in 2012. It is an example of what happens when crimes are not reported when they occur. The details, as published by the magazine, are shocking. No boozy seduction that shifted into coercion, but a brutal three-hour gang rape, allegedly, by seven members of the Phi Psi fraternity, that left Jackie bleeding and dazed.
She did not go to the hospital. She did not call police. Her friends talked her out of it.
“We’ll never be allowed into any frat party again,” one says. Astounding.
After the story, “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was published in October, repercussions were swift — bad national publicity prods inert schools into action, another reason these crimes must be reported. The school suspended its Greek program while it investigated the charges.
Since then, holes were punched in the story. The frat did not actually hold any events the weekend of the supposed party. People she had named as members were not, in fact, members of the frat.
On Friday, Rolling Stone stepped back.
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” editor Will Dana wrote in a statement. “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”
A little late to be taking this seriously. Rolling Stone (and I should say, for full disclosure, I wrote a number of articles for the magazine in the 1990s) had a duty to find out exactly what had happened before going with the story, not afterward. Apologizing now for causing a fuss is lame.
“Discrepancies” do not mean a story is made up. You would expect a person undergoing such trauma to get a few things wrong. Another reason why it’s important for them to a) call the police and b) go to the hospital and collect forensic evidence.
Without calling the police, the risk of crimes going unpunished, or ignored, rises. Because we live in a country where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and we would not want to live in a place where that wasn’t true. While most rape accusations are not fabricated, some are, enough that we insist that the accused get their day in court, or their say in an article tarring a fraternity and a university.
This is not to let schools off the hook. They have a responsibility to see that students who are found to have committed these crimes suffer repercussions. One major reason women are reluctant to report rape is that, even when the case is solid, all too often no one is punished but themselves, for having spoken out. That has to change.
Yet, this story did not appear in a vacuum, but in a political setting where the rights of victims, and supposed victims, are trumping the rights of people being accused, both truly and, at times, falsely. Politically correct dating rituals also creep into the issue, muddying it further.
Now the threat is that the pendulum will go the other way. That frat louts and colleges under the gun to provide safer environments will heave a sigh of relief and say, “See, it wasn’t true.”
That is a mistake. First, this case could still be true. Second, even if this particular crime did not occur, rapes regularly happen on campuses, and colleges must do a better job of teaching students how to react: by calling the police, by going a to hospital.