Why 'Rolling Stone's "A Rape On Campus" Retraction Is A Big Blow For Survivors Of Sexual Assault

On Sunday night, Rolling Stone retracted the "A Rape On Campus" article the magazine had published in November 2014, after an independent investigation into the piece's accuracy revealed a failure of reporting. The piece centered around the alleged gang rape of "Jackie," a student at the University of Virginia, and used her story as a jumping off point to discuss what seemed to be an epidemic of sexual misconduct on the campus. But shortly after the story's publication, The Washington Post uncovered some serious flaws in writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely's reporting – flaws that called Jackie's entire story into question. Rolling Stone responded by asking the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the investigation itself, and find out if and where Erdely had gone wrong. What they discovered were "failures at every stage of the process" and a neglect for "basic, even routine journalistic practice." It seems that Jackie may have been making false claims, and Erdely may have been derelict in making sure that wasn't the case before sharing her story with the world.

While there is some relief in the fact that the horrific assault Jackie described may not, in fact, have taken place, this revelation isn't a victory for sexual assault survivors — it is a setback, and not an insignificant one. Though it was so unfortunate that it took a sensational story in a high-profile magazine to do so, "A Rape On Campus" galvanized the UVA community around the issue of sexual assault. Fraternities were suspended. Protests were held. The school pledged a zero tolerance policy. What was once an important issue for the school's survivor community became an important issue for the school — and the country — as a whole. Sexual assault is an epidemic on college campuses, UVA's responses to the accusations were often inadequate, and finally people were talking about it.

One has to wonder — now that this story has been retracted, will that progress be undone? Will those people who joined the cause return to their indifference? Will the outcry against assault have ultimately gained or lost voices in the aftermath of this? Will those people who claim rape culture is a figment of the feminist imagination feel vindicated?

And, perhaps most importantly, what does this mean for other survivors? Will they be less likely to be believed? Will they be less likely to report their assaults? The Columbia report states:

Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine's failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, "It's going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault," said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely's sources.

Rape survivors are already fighting an uphill battle against people who are skeptical of their accounts. A 2010 survey indicated that a majority of people believe that victims should take responsibility for their assaults if they got into bed with their rapist; another report indicated that police showed skepticism towards 86 percent of women who waited to report their rape; another study showed that jurors in cases of sexual assault tend to make judgments based on their preconceived notions of what "real" rape looks like. And when victims show delayed reactions to or imperfect memories of their assaults, people tend to jump to the conclusion that they are lying, rather than recognizing that they may be suffering from shock or post-traumatic stress. And though it was Erdely's responsibility to corroborate her story, maybe that is true of Jackie.

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Not only may this retraction make it more difficult for victims to be believed — it may make them less likely to report their assaults in the first place for fear of such skepticism. In response to the Columbia report, Erdely issued a statement:

... I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article ... I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.

There's already a big barrier to college students reporting rape. 80 percent of student assaults go unreported to the police, while 67 percent on non-student assaults go unreported (perhaps because of the pernicious problem of colleges handling their own sexual assault allegations rather than turning them over to law enforcement), and 12 percent of student victims said the assault was not "important enough" to report, while the same was true of five percent of non-student victims. Anything that may further discourage already-reluctant victims from reporting these crimes is a huge blow to the transparency around and eventual eradication of sexual assault, on college campuses and elsewhere.

University President Teresa A. Sullivan agrees. She said in a statement made Sunday night:

Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue ... Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.

She reassured us that the Columbia report's revelations would not undo the strides the University has made in addressing sexual assault.

We will continue to implement substantive reforms to improve culture, prevent violence and respond to acts of violence when they occur.

But when the very report that spurred these reforms no longer holds water, will that prove to be true? Or will the drive for change stall out? We can only hope that people don't use this retraction as an excuse to back out of commitments they've made to address the issue of sexual assault.

And we can hope that the survivors out there see this as a reason to speak out rather than stay quiet. That they somehow summon the bravery to say "don't doubt every rape survivor like you doubt Jackie. Don't doubt that this problem exists because of this error in reporting. This is what happened to me, and this is what is happening to far too many people. And it needs to change."