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.

Quote For The Day

“In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this. I did find reports of women who were raped by multiple men on one night—but those always involved incapacitation, either by alcohol or a drugged drink. And I did also find accounts of violent, push-down rape of the kind in the essay—but those were always by one member, not a bunch of members. (In fact, many of that kind—now that I think about it—were committed by non-members, or by visiting former members). But a planned gang rape, without alcohol or drugs, and keyed to initiation—I have never seen a case like that. Nor have I seen penetration with a foreign object—I’ve seen plenty of that committed by brothers to pledges as hazing, but I haven’t seen it in sexual assault cases. I’m sure it’s happened, but again—as part of a ritualized gang rape … Never anything like it,” – Caitlin Flanagan, author of the definitive piece on frat house culture, to Slate‘s Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Is the gang-rape story at UVA credible? We’ve been covering it for a while now – perhaps a little too credulously – but a reader did raise some questions about its credibility in our second post. My old roommate and friend, Rich Bradley, had a ballsy must-read on it last week that raises one obvious question: why did the reporter not even try to talk to any of the alleged rapists? This should set off alarm bells for any editor, and yet the editor insists all due skepticism was applied, even though he never personally spoke with Jackie. I’m sorry but if you’re running a story about such a terrible accusation relying on one key source and do not personally vet that source, you’re not doing your job. Tom Maguire even dug up a comment on the NYT message board for a piece on the rape that claims first hand knowledge that some quotes in the piece were indeed made up. Erik Wemple has also weighed in:

This lapse is inexcusable: Even if the accused aren’t named in the story, Erdely herself acknowledges that “people seem to know who these people are.” If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input. The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.

I have to agree. That doesn’t mean the gang-rape didn’t happen; and it doesn’t mean that the university’s response was defensible. It does mean that when you’re reporting on a terribly serious and appalling crime, you talk to as many of those involved as you possibly can. I have a feeling that this story is by no means over.

Today, on the good news fronts (to me, at least): HIV is getting weaker as a virus and the number of abortions is back down to pre-Roe levels; Obama has made slow but real progress in isolating Ebola, ISIS and Putin; and Hillary Clinton is less popular than at any point since 2009. I also made the case that the Schumer critique of Obama putting healthcare reform before economic recovery disintegrates upon inspection. Plus: another awesome fall window; a weed breathalyzer makes its debut; and a comedian tells stories about his gigs on campuses.

The most popular post of the day was Walking While Black (updated here); followed by Listening.

Many of this week’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 22 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. Dish t-shirts are for sale here and our new mugs here.

A reader comments on our latest transparency update:

Congrats on the slow and steady growth.  I’ve been a loyal and daily reader for somewhere around a decade now and subscribed as soon as you started your new model.  Here’s what will lose me faster than anything: if you go the way of so many websites that have to have a massively cluttered webpage with ads here and there, countless articles to link to. Most news sites and blogs have turned into a mess in their efforts to be all things to all people. Besides your varied content, what I love best about your website is the very simple set-up and interface.  Change that and you’ll lose me.

Slow and steady is a beautiful thing, even in the Internet age.

And often especially so. See you in the morning.

The Damage Control Is Done, Ctd

In light of the horrific allegations that UVA covered up a student’s gang-rape, Libby Nelson imagines applying the university’s honor code – which has seen 183 students expelled over academic infractions since 1998 – to sexual assault allegations:

When California colleges began requiring affirmative consent, or “yes means yes,” there was an outcry from commentators afraid that they were reclassifying ordinary sex as rape. But “yes means yes” is simply the sexual version of an academic honor code. It’s acknowledgment that attending a college is not a right but a privilege that comes with responsibilities, and that one of those responsibilities is to treat fellow students with respect. …

Although false accusations of rape are extremely rare, a wrongful criminal conviction for sexual assault is a travesty. A wrongful expulsion from college after due process for the accused is deeply unfair, but it leaves a less permanent stain. If a student expelled for sexual assault enrolls elsewhere, their transcript doesn’t usually list the reason for the expulsion, and colleges don’t have to disclose the details.

Wendy McElroy disagrees on that last point:

A common rejoinder is that hearings are not legal proceedings. But the hearings actually operate in a legal gray zone.

For example, the last campaign from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault includes improving cooperation with the police. Increasingly, the testimony an accused gives without due process can be turned over for use by the police and courts. Moreover, the hearings impose penalties as draconian as a court. A student can be expelled with the word “rapist” permanently in his file. He may be tens of thousands of dollars in debt with no ability to obtain a license to practice his chosen profession. Many unlicensed professions will shun him as well. What university of quality will accept him? His reputation and belief in justice may be damaged beyond repair.

Rebecca Plante and Andrew Smiler take a different view, arguing that the low standards of evidence used by the university’s misconduct board actually make them less likely to “convict”:

Although apparently the president’s office was aware of allegations of sexual felonies, including gang rapes, it also appears that the Charlottesville police were not asked to investigate until recently. Why are colleges and universities investigating allegations of felony sex-related crimes without having to involve local law enforcement? Given the paucity of the training, is it reasonable to expect board members and university staff members to investigate and adjudicate such serious criminal allegations? Board members are also expected to base their findings on a preponderance of evidence (for example, a 51-percent likelihood that a crime was committed). That standard may dissuade board members from finding the accused guilty.

Meanwhile, like one of our readers, Richard Bradley finds the Rolling Stone story incredible:

Jackie makes her way downstairs, her red dress apparently sufficiently intact to wear; the party is still raging. Though she is blood-stained – three hours with shards of glass “digging into her back,” and gang-raped, including with a beer bottle – and must surely look deeply traumatized, no one notices her. She makes her way out a side entrance she hadn’t seen before. She calls her friends, who tell her that she doesn’t want to be known as the girl who cried rape and worry that if they take her to the hospital they won’t get invited to subsequent frat parties.

Nothing in this story is impossible; it’s important to note that. It could have happened. But to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark – as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to – requires a lot of leaps of faith. It requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases.

Bradley’s skepticism makes Robby Soave wonder:

[W]hen I say that I was initially inclined to believe the story, it’s not because I wanted or needed it to be true to fit my worldview. Rather, I assumed honesty on the part of the author and her source—not because I’m naive, but because I didn’t think someone would lie about such an unbelievable story. This isn’t a case of he-said / she-said; this is an extraordinary crime that indicts a dozen people and an entire university administration. Assuming a proper investigation—which the police are now conducting—confirming many of the specific details should be relatively easy. If “Jackie” is lying, there is a good chance she will be caught (and Erdely’s career ruined). So I believed it.

However, some of the details do strike me as perplexing on subsequent re-reads.

Yglesias Award Nominee

“I cannot shake the image of “Jackie” being serially raped on a broken glass table by a fraternity gang a few hundred yards from my office at UVA, perhaps by men who have taken a class by me, especially knowing that her rapists have paid no legal or educational price for their heinous deeds. My own sense of horror and outrage is only deepened by what I found out yesterday: In my Sociology of the Family class, in an anonymous survey, seven of the 103 female students that I am teaching reported that they had been “forced into a sexual act against [their] will,” and an additional 33 of these students reported that a “UVA friend” has experienced such a violation. So, in one large class at the University of Virginia, fully 39 percent of the female students report having been directly affected by forcible sexual assault. To be sure, there are important debates about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, but UVA’s experience indicates that there are more cases of campus rape than many might expect,” – W. Bradford Wilcox, NRO, in a piece called “The Right And Campus Rape”.

The Damage Control Is Done, Ctd

A few readers offer their perspective on the awful situation at the University of Virginia:

I’m a former federal prosecutor and an alum of UVA.  I think those who advocate for the criminal justice system being used instead of having colleges investigate sexual assault are asking too much of the criminal justice system.  While the gang rape at the center of the Rolling Stone article would be a good case for full prosecutorial investigation, most sexual assaults occurring on most campuses would not.  Most “date rape” scenarios would never be prosecuted.  Without third-party witnesses or evidence of a “roofie” in the girl’s blood, prosecutors would generally not find enough evidence to indict.  The beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard is simply too high in those kinds of cases, and if we left them for the criminal justice system to handle, it would likely end up being an excuse for inaction.

Another goes out on a limb:

As a 2005 UVA grad and fraternity member, I am having a lot of trouble formulating any sort of reaction to this situation without coming off as some sort of rape-supporting monster, but I am very uncomfortable with the rush to judgement and the urge to punish the “bad guys” as quickly and severely as possible.

The Rolling Stone story made me feel sick to my stomach with anger when I started to read it. However, by the end of the article, I was surprised that they even agreed to publish it, considering the explosive implications of the allegations and the lack of proof or corroboration that the story was true. The victim deserves to be believed by her friends, support network, and any counselors or professionals whose job involves helping rape survivors, but a journalist is not supposed to be a credulous scribe for any allegation.

There are some people who will literally wish my violent death for saying this, but there is a chance that the accuser made it up or exaggerated.  It happens.  That doesn’t mean that we refuse to listen to the allegations and say terrible things about her, but it does mean that we as a society should still ask for proof.  The fraternity in question has been essentially destroyed as an institution because of this story, and if it’s true, they totally deserve it. But I would have been much more comfortable if the accuser had at least tried to press charges with the police or the university.

I also see many calls for collective punishment for all fraternities, regardless of their actual record of behavior.  This is simply unfair.  There are 30 frats at UVA, representing about 30% of the males in the student body.  It is absurd to claim that 30% of UVA men are rapists, rape supporters, or otherwise implicated in a “rape culture”.

If anyone had that sort of attitude about women, they wouldn’t even be invited back to a rush event at my house or many others.  We voluntarily worked with One in Four on educating every single pledge who came into our organization about consent, preventing assaults, and monitoring each other’s behavior to prevent bad situations.  We had multiple sober party monitors at every event with alcohol to go from room to room and make sure nothing bad was happening.  That included telling brothers not to bring stumbling drunk girls to their rooms.  It included helping find people at the party when their friends were looking for them.  It even included calling 911 to get an ambulance to our own doorstep to help a girl who was either drugged or drastically over-served at another house and then wandered to our house looking to drink more.

The Damage Control Is Done

In a deeply reported, deeply disturbing story published late last week, Sabrina Rubin Erdely exposed how the University of Virginia has repeatedly mishandled and covered up rape allegations, including the gang-rape of a first-year student at a frat house two years ago:

UVA furnished Rolling Stone with some of its most recent tally: In the last academic year, 38 students went to [Dean Nicole] Eramo about a sexual assault, up from about 20 students three years ago. However, of those 38, only nine resulted in “complaints”; the other 29 students evaporated. Of those nine complaints, four resulted in Sexual Misconduct Board hearings. UVA wasn’t willing to disclose their outcomes, citing privacy. Like most colleges, sexual-assault proceedings at UVA unfold in total secrecy. Asked why UVA doesn’t publish all its data, President Sullivan explains that it might not be in keeping with “best practices” and thus may inadvertently discourage reporting. Jackie [the 2012 gang-rape victim] got a different explanation when she’d eventually asked Dean Eramo the same question. She says Eramo answered wryly, “Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Erdely’s exposé has already had consequences: UVA’s president has suspended all fraternities and associated parties until further notice and belatedly asked the local police to investigate the 2012 incident. Dreher compares the UVA coverup to the Church’s sex abuse scandal:

This is what the Catholic Church did. The first case I wrote about, back in 2001, involved an immigrant teenager who was passed around priests in a Bronx parish. When the boy’s father learned what happened, he went to see an auxiliary bishop. According to the victim’s lawyer, the auxiliary bishop allegedly pulled out a checkbook and offered a payout in exchange for the father signing a paper giving the Archdiocese of New York’s attorneys the right to handle his case. The father may have been a laborer and an immigrant, but he knew a scam when he saw it. He left and hired his own lawyer. And here we see the University of Virginia following a similar script.

Dahlia Lithwick’s takeaway is that the Title IX-mandated system by which college administrations are expected to adjudicate rape cases outside the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed:

If the purpose of the current internal adjudication is to increase transparency and reporting, that runs against the most basic institutional incentive to hide bad news. If the object is to counsel and support survivors, it’s not clear that has worked very well either. And if the object is to keep the campus safe, it has failed spectacularly.

According to one Justice Department report, less than 5 percent of attempted or completed rapes on campus are reported to law enforcement. Universities attempted to create a second-tier system that bypassed that criminal justice process, softened the impact of filing a complaint, and lessened the process obligations and the fact-finding capacities of internal reviews. It worked. And in so doing, it largely failed. The question we should be asking ourselves is not simply what it is about campuses that lead the friends and counselors of the victim to discourage her from seeking help from the police and the hospital. The real question is whether, having crafted an internal system that either masks or exacerbates many of the worst features of the systems it seeks to replace, do we want to stand by it? After reading the Rolling Stone piece do we think universities are moving toward solving the campus rape problem or inadvertently colluding in hiding it?

Judith Shulevitz asks the obvious followup:

So what should universities be doing about violent sexual assault? In those orientation sessions, they should be teaching students to see sexual felonies as feloniesnot as violations of campus policy, but as crimes to be reported as soon as possible to police officers trained to investigate them so that prosecutors can prosecute them. If local cops and courts aren’t doing their job, then universities should use their considerable clout in make sure that they do.

A study published this year in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, for instance, suggested that if universities want to make women feel more comfortable about reporting rape, they should add more women to their campus security police forceas of about half a decade ago, only 17 percent of campus police officers were women. A body of research on regular female police officers shows that not only to women prefer to report rape to them, they’re better at eliciting painful details from victims, which leads to higher rates of conviction. There is no reason that university officials couldn’t be working to help their local police departments make reforms like these.

On a related point, McArdle responds to our reader’s contention that the concept of due process is not cut-and-dry and that making it easier to expel accused rapists from college is not that big a deal:

In the first place, the government is pushing for these relaxed standards of evidence and due process, via Title IX, which means that this is the government doing something to you.  Not putting you in prison, to be sure.  But — and I hardly believe I have to say this — getting expelled on a sexual assault charge is, in fact, something very bad happening to you. I don’t know why people keep saying that this is “all” that happens, as if it were the educational equivalent of having to change hotels mid-vacation. …

Rape is a terrible thing, which is why we try it in courts, and lock rapists away for a good long time. It’s also why we treat rapists like they are terrible people who may be admitted to normal society only after convincing repentance and rehabilitation. That’s precisely why it’s problematic that we’re adjudicating these charges through such a weak process. Expelling someone for rape creates an official record that brands them, in the eyes of society, as a rapist. We should do that only after careful examination, giving the accused every chance to tell his side. Not because we are making light of rape, but because we are treating these terrible events, and the punishment we mete out, with all the seriousness they deserve.