Beverly McPhail and I were invited to comment on the Rolling Stone/U-Va “Jackie” story in the Houston Chronicle.

The online commenters debate the second line, that “Research reveals that one woman in five experiences a sexual assault in college, and the majority go unreported” without seeming to have read the rest of the argument.  Clearly it’s hard to be precise about unreported events.  Our point is that neither an unverified “story” by bad  journalists nor the debatability of a specific percentage number makes it less important to change the long-standing culture of silence around rape on many campuses (and by the way in the world at large). The good news is, positive change is underway.

Bad reporting of sexual assault doesn’t reduce its prevalence

by Beverly McPhail & Elizabeth Gregory

Campus rape now has a national spotlight after decades in the dark. Research reveals that one woman in five experiences a sexual assault in college, and the majority go unreported. After years of ignoring it, universities nationwide, under pressure from the Justice Department, are now actively working to radically lower assaults.

Discussing rape openly, making its unacceptability clear, holding friends accountable for reporting known or suspected assaults, and expelling those found guilty through due process can transform the campus climate.

Many perpetrators are serial offenders who have been enabled to roam freely by a culture that blames the victims and supports the view that violent or coerced sex is normal. (This is not just a campus problem. When the rape and murder of women play as popular TV “entertainment” nightly, should we be surprised that they also occur often in the real world?)

Paradoxically, an early sign of success at culture change is that reports of rape rise – signaling that more women feel comfortable coming forward for assistance. And reporting has been increasing on campuses in response to the altered policies and attitudes.

It’s against this backdrop of positive change that the controversy around the recent article in Rolling Stone magazine on a purported sexual assault at the University of Virginia has played out. A student called “Jackie” gave the reporter a horrific account of being gang-raped at a fraternity party. The reporter didn’t verify the story with those Jackie accused (to the extent that they could be identified) or with the friends Jackie said she told about the rape right after it occurred. As has been widely reported, the story hasn’t held up: There was no official party at the frat the night Jackie cited, the person she named to friends as her date turns out to have been an acquaintance from high school and not a student at UVa, and the friends report that rather than dissuading Jackie from going to the hospital as she claimed, they tried to take her there. Clearly something bad happened at some point to Jackie, either in the frat house (the friends report they’ve never seen anyone as disturbed as she was that night) or at some earlier point in her life, or maybe both. But we still don’t know what that was.

Ironically, a story that apparently aimed to give readers greater understanding of rape victims’ experience may instead re­inforce victim-blaming and heighten the level of doubt that victims encounter when they come forward.

In no other crime is a victim treated with such disbelief and scrutiny as sexual assault, and Rolling Stone’s journalistic fail could increase that skepticism. That would be a tragic outcome; it could push some victims back into the shadows who were just beginning to feel that they might safely come forward. Though it’s a common myth that women routinely lie about rape for their own purposes, one study has found that the rate of false allegations is low – between 2 percent and 10 percent.

This is further complicated by the fact that neuro­biological changes due to trauma can make memory consolidation and recall difficult, often resulting in fragmented memories that may lead to discrepancies in women’s stories. We don’t yet know whether this was a factor in Jackie’s case.

The moral of the Rolling Stone story is that bad reporting is a disservice to everyone – the public, the magazine and the story. But it does nothing to change the fact that university culture, including fraternity culture, has historically allowed too many sexual assaults to occur. We can put that history behind us now.

Jackie’s story can serve as a teachable moment of an expanded kind from what Rolling Stone intended. Through expanded training and education on sexual assault for all parties – including students, faculty, administrators, law enforcement and journalists – we can win justice for survivors while holding perpetrators accountable, we can learn to better understand the effects of trauma, and we can move toward changing the culture of violence toward women overall.

In 2012, under the leadership of Title IX Coordinator Dr. Richard Baker, the University of Houston adopted a new sexual misconduct policy using the affirmative consent standard (“yes means yes”) that was made mandatory in California universities earlier this year. The standard shifts from requiring that victims explain how they resisted to placing responsibility on the sexual initiator to gain permission for sexual acts. These and related efforts are already showing some success, and the UVa story can’t be allowed to derail such progress.

One of the first mainstream books on rape, “Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape,” written by journalist Susan Brownmiller, ended with these words: “My purpose in this book has been to give rape its history. Now we must deny it a future.” That remains our goal today, on college campuses and beyond.


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