The 'Rolling Stone' Apology For Its UVA Article Shouldn't Distract From Our Campus Sex Assault Epidemic

When Rolling Stone published a deeply harrowing article on an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia on Nov. 17, it reignited a national conversation about rape on college campuses throughout the United States and administrations' — in particular, the University of Virginia's — abject inability to appropriately respond to the issue. These facts, in broad strokes, still stand; but on Friday, Rolling Stone published a formal apology note about the article, entitled "A Note To Our Readers."

Rolling Stone, and in particular writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had come under fire for not mentioning that the alleged rapists at Phi Kappa Psi had denied the claims. Erdely was also widely criticized for not speaking to any of the accused. Erdely and Rolling Stone had maintained that the magazine had tried to reach out to the accused, and that Erdely had spoken to two officials at the fraternity in lieu of the accused rapists. "I'm satisfied that these guys exist and are real," Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods told the Washington Post.

In its formal "note to readers," Rolling Stone did not touch on specific claims or facts that were in dispute. It blamed the victim, "Jackie," for the "discrepancies" and went some way to defend the magazine's writers and editors, which has been widely interpreted as victim-blaming.

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university's failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

Now, the fraternity in question — so reviled on campus that there were demonstrations outside the house, and fraternities were temporarily shut down — will reportedly say publicly that there was no party on the night that "Jackie," the anonymous victim in the Rolling Stone story, was assaulted, and that several other notable facts of her story are in dispute, according to the Washington Post.

The big takeaway? As Rolling Stone writes, the fact that one women's story turned out to not be entirely consistent with the truth — again, this is not to say that Jackie was not raped, just that there were "discrepancies" between what Jackie told Erdely and what happened — could possibly damage the credibility of sex assault victims everywhere. Regardless of Jackie and her personal story, and quite regardless of Rolling Stone and its reporting, sex assault is a widespread problem on college campuses across the United States, and the fear of not being believed is what leads many young victims to not report their assaults. Amid all the back-and-forth over this single story, we cannot forget that.

From Rolling Stone's note:

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. 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.