UVA: Pushing Back On The Pushback

Ari Schulman goes after Rich Bradley’s querying of the UVA gang-rape story:

Bradley also gets wrong numerous details of the Rolling Stone article itself: who was and wasn’t interviewed; the claim that all of Jackie’s friends discouraged her from going to the hospital; Jackie’s ostensible lack of identity; Jackie’s inability to identify the perpetrators. He changes a line from the article without noting it, adding quote marks around words that didn’t have them. He mischaracterizes Jackie’s claim that one in three women at UVA are raped. He also invokes the claim as evidence of a broader cultural climate surrounding rape in which “emotion has outswept reason.” The slip here is strange: The emotionality of an alleged rape victim is offered as evidence of the irrationality of those who would believe her. These are not minor problems for any argument, but they are particularly problematic for one that sells itself as a scolding in journalistic carefulness.

Most significant, Bradley says that if fraternity gang rape were so prevalent, “One would think that we’d have heard of this before.” But the article describes other instances of the practice, from two current allegations besides Jackie’s to a conviction in a court of a law for a prior gang rape by members of the very same fraternity at UVA. All of this is also easily verifiable outside of the Rolling Stone article. And the Washington Post, among others, has detailed the extensive history of gang rape at fraternities nationwide.

Kat Stoeffel defends Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s decision not to identify or interview the alleged rapists in her story:

Media critics have taken Erdely to task for not pressing Jackie to confirm their identities and allow her to track them down in person, though single-source narration happens without incident in less sensitive stories all the time. (There probably wasn’t anybody around to corroborate some of the details of GQ’s lauded feature on hermit Christopher Knight, either.) What makes Jackie’s story arguably different is the magnitude of her accusations: Critics of the story say that the men deserved a chance to offer their side of the story before having their names smeared. Except, what names? The only identified entity at risk of reputational harm in Rolling Stone is Phi Kappa Psi, leaders of which Erdely did reach. …

No journalist wants to fall for the next Stephen Glass or Duke lacrosse case. But Erdely wrote the piece in such a way that she and Rolling Stone — not Jackie and Drew — are the ones who will be most damaged by a false report. Meanwhile, the journalist backlash is putting feminists who believe in believing women in the uncomfortable position of hoping Jackie told the truth about her gang rape. Not because we want to confirm our biases about monstrous men, but because we’d hate to see confirmation for sexist biases about lying, attention-seeking women. In other words, we’re backed into the corner of hoping someone was gang-raped on broken glass — and how can that possibly constitute a happy ending? If anything, we should hope that Jackie is lying. Then exactly zero lives will have been ruined in this story.

In a series of tweets, Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson points out another high profile rape story in which the rapist was not contacted. Lindsay Beyerstein also counters some of the credibility pushback on the piece:

Some of the details of Jackie’s story do seem surreal, but memories of trauma are often fragmentary. She and one of her attackers allegedly tumbled through a glass coffee table. We’re told she was pinned on the floor with shattered glass digging into her back before she was raped. Hot Air’s Noah Rothman dismissed Jackie’s story as a “fantastical account of college men raping a woman atop piles of broken glass.”

Is the coffee table story really so far-fetched? I spoke to Mark Meshulam, an expert witness who testifies in court on glass and its properties. Mr. Meshulam said that the likely outcome of a fall through a glass table depends on many factors, but the biggest variable would be whether the tabletop was made of regular glass or safety glass. Both types are common, he explained. … If it were a tempered glass table, the glass would have shattered into little pebbles, which are non-lethal but still sharp enough to cut someone who’s lying on them, Mr. Meshulam said. In that case, he’d expect her to be scratched up, maybe badly enough to need stitches, but not necessarily. Which is pretty much the level of injury the story implies.

Wouldn’t all the alleged rapists have been cut up as well? Wouldn’t this have affected the entire horrifying gang rape? And one of Dreher’s readers shares a story that adds credibility to Jackie’s experience with her friends following the rape:

I was a very naive freshman going to her first college party- and I’d never been around alcohol before. I didn’t drink anything that night, but many of the people around me had a lot. One girl got incredibly drunk and a guy who wasn’t very drunk convinced her to go “watch a movie” in his room. I was too naive to understand what may have been happening here, so I didn’t do anything. When we went to leave the party with my friends, we went by that boy’s room to collect our friend- she was disheveled and extremely drunk, and her pants were down. I suspected she had been sexually assaulted.

Our group returned immediately to our dorm and an RA spotted the drunk girl as we walked in. The dorm staff called my friends and me separately into a room and asked us all exactly what we’d witnessed. Apparently their purpose was to figure out how much alcohol the girl had consumed to decide whether or not she needed to go to the ER. I naively told exactly what I’d seen that night, including the part about her disappearing to the boy’s room (so I didn’t know how much she had to drink during that time) and coming out with her pants down. Apparently no one else said anything about the boy. My “friends” figured out that I’d told that part of the story and I was immediately shunned from the social group for “tattling” and “slut-shaming.”

In light of the new criticisms about the piece, McArdle wants the cops to figure it out:

[T]he university may well be able to identify everyone, because the story strongly suggests that an entire new class of Phi Kappa Psi brothers participated in a gang rape, either of Jackie or of the two other girls who she learned were also gang raped at the fraternity around the same time that she had been.  As far as I can tell, Virginia has no statute of limitations on rape, which means the police should be aggressively investigating these sickening allegations.   The university has a duty to its own community, and to the community at large, to do its utmost to identify as many rapists as possible, and help the police to bring them to justice.  And all of us who have a stake in reducing rape — which is to say, all of us who are not rapists — should be putting as much pressure as possible on the UVA administration to ensure that it does exactly that.

And Rebecca Traister worries that people are losing sight of Erdely’s point, which is that UVA, like so many other universities, has done an abysmal job of responding to allegations of rape on campus:

The dismantling of Erdely’s storyboth by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic errorwould mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed, and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.

What we will all be allowed to happily forget is that there are plenty of real stories of rape: of violent rape, frat house rape, gang rape, date rape; that most rape accusers do not lie and that in fact it’s quite likely, statistically, that Jackie herself did not lie. But the most serious thing that we’ll be allowed to forget is the very point of Erdely’s story, whatever its strengths or flaws may be determined to be: The system does not work. Actually, in both the case of the UVA rape and in the case of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri the major takeaway of recent weeks should be that our systems do not work.

Freddie weighs in, saying – in essence – that truth matters:

[W]hy are people so resistant to giving these stories a rigorous and skeptical review, the way we should do with any reporting? What are you so afraid of?

The standard response is that countenancing questions about reports of rape helps denialists, who will seize on problems with reporting and use them to agitate against anti-rape efforts in general. But that doesn’t make any sense, to me. In order for that argument to hold water, you’ve got to prove that preventing these questions from being asked actually defuses rape denialism. That seems to be literally the opposite of the case; denialists are emboldened by such refusal. They seize on such resistance as evidence of conspiracy  and weak evidence. I think it’s profoundly naive to believe that we can hold the line against critical review of rape narratives in such a way as to prevent denialism. Rape denialism is a sad fact of life, but it can be combated with evidence and careful argument. Denialism is an argument for being skeptical and rigorous, not an argument against it.

I’m with Freddie and Megan on this. Get to the bottom of it. And stop trying to deter legitimate skepticism toward a piece whose horrors are so detailed and whose villains so despicable that asking further questions is perfectly natural. At some point, the posturing needs to end and the fact-finding and prosecution go forward.