We Don’t Need to Prove “Jackie’s” Story

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TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of sexual assault

By now, most people will have read, or at least heard of, the Rolling Stone article that details the alleged gang rape of Jackie, a first-year student at the University of Virginia (UVA). The day I read her story, my reaction was similar to that of my female friends: sadness, anger, empathy, but not surprise. When I heard that Jackie’s story was being questioned, though, my reaction was slightly different from that of my peers: My first thought was, “So what?”

So what if there are inaccuracies in this individual’s story? The journalist side of me tells me that the devil is in the details, but a larger part of me knows that the real devil is the rape culture that pervades college campuses. The national obsession with proving or disproving Jackie’s story only serves to obscure this point.

To me, and to many other college women, it doesn’t matter if Jackie’s story is discrepant in some areas. What matters is that while we nitpick every detail of her account, campus rape continues to make survivors out of thousands of women every year. What matters is that I have lost count of the number of friends who have been assaulted in my three-and-a-half years on campus. What matters is the pain, the feelings of shame and the fact that the survivors I know are just a fraction of the one in five college women who will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.

No matter the outcome of Jackie’s case, nothing will change how her story rang true for too many college women. I know it rang true for me.

It was only after reading Jackie’s story, and hearing the outpouring of support from other survivors, that I was finally able to tell my friends what happened to me my freshman year at Occidental College. It was after our first big campus dance that I was introduced to the underbelly of campus hookup culture. Wandering the dance floor, drunk and separated from my friends, I ran into an upperclassman who invited me back to his dorm for an after-party. The “party,” it turned out, was the two of us alone in his bedroom. Despite the fact that I was unable to walk on my own, and repeatedly told him not to remove his clothes, he carried me to his bed and undressed us both. Fifteen minutes later, when I left his room in tears, he told me that what happened was my fault—that I was “too beautiful to resist.” I never filed a formal complaint, because it wasn’t until I began reporting on sexual assault in my sophomore year that I even named what had happened to me as rape.

When I told this story to my friends recently, the men looked at me in disbelief. But the women nodded their heads in agreement, as every one of them had experienced something similar.

One of my sorority sisters was also assaulted her freshman year and, unlike me, attempted to report the assault to our school. Instead of finding support, she was repeatedly rebuffed by administrators, driving her into a spiral of depression, self-loathing and anorexia that required a semester-long leave to recover from. Last year, a coworker from my campus job left school and moved across the country. It was later revealed that she had been assaulted by another of our coworkers and was afraid to return to campus.

This is the reality of being a woman in college: Interspersed with the popular tales of wild parties and consensual hookups are whispered stories of aggression, coercion and rape. But don’t take my word for it: Look up the pages upon pages of similar stories that women shared in the wake of the Rolling Stone piece. Instead of focusing on Jackie’s case, let’s focus on the larger culture that exists—at UVA, at Occidental, at others schools across the country—that makes women feel unsafe on their own campuses.

One questionable account does not change the fact that the problem with rape cases isn’t false reporting; it’s underreporting. False reports make up only 2 to 8 percent of all rape reports, while less than 5 percent of college sexual-assault survivors report their rapes at all. Yet our first reaction to any account of rape is to immediately question its validity, just as the media has done to Jackie’s account in the last few weeks. We become consumed with nit-picking every detail of the story, even though we know that trauma can make victims’ memories fuzzy and that many rapes aren’t reported until years after the fact.

Our tendency to distrust accounts of rape not only re-traumatizes the survivors but contributes to a culture that allows serial rapists to go free. It’s scary to go about my day knowing that more than 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are committed by serial rapists, and that only 1 to 4 percent of alleged assailants are ever punished by their university. It’s scary to go to class, to sports games, to parties, knowing that perhaps someone who has assaulted me, or one of my friends, will be there.

This is what we should take from Jackie’s story, whether it’s fully accurate or not: Being a woman on a college campus today means feeling, at times, threatened, abandoned and scared. Talking heads can deconstruct her story all they want, but they won’t make those feelings any less real.

 

Photo of protest against UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi by Flickr user Bob Mical under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and editor in chief of The Occidental Weekly. Follow her on Twitter.

 

 

Comments

  1. I am a person who believes survivors without question, up to and until the point I am given compelling evidence to the contrary. I still believe that something happened to Jackie; whether or not it was exactly as portrayed in the RS article is another story. However, there were major inconsistencies in the RS article that cannot be chalked up to rape trauma syndrome, in my opinion. The fact that the feminist movement continues to deny this is ludicrous to me; it makes you lose all credibility. Rather than saying the inconsistencies don’t matter, we should be acknowledging them and finding out WHY they exist. Did Jackie embellish her story to the reporter, and if so, why? Did the RS reporter embellish the story to make it more dramatic, more headline-grabbing, and if so, why? I think we can simultaneously address these questions and drive home the talking points about campus rape, false reporting, etc. But to deny their existence seems unwise to me, and only gives fuel to those who question the motives of feminists.

    • Really, “Amanda” (or is that “Steve”?) – questioning rape culture “makes you lose all credibility”? That’s pretty drastic, considering that you don’t question the credibility of rapists. Nobody has said that Jackie “embellished” her story except rape apologists, so what is your point?
      Thanks for the dire warning that, if feminists don’t tiptoe around rape claims, it “only gives fuel to those who question the motives of feminists.” Do you mean those like you?

      • This closing of ranks and attacking anyone who is questioning the story as an MRA or rape apologist is worrying to me. There are some real inconsistencies in Jackie’s story. Those inconsistencies require further investigation before we can assert that the frat in question was holding ritualized gang rapes. Questioning these inconsistencies doesn’t make Amanda or anyone else pro-rape or pro-rape culture. it means you are pro-truth, and pro not convicting someone in the court of public opinion for a crime they may not have committed. I think feminists should be prepared for it to come out that Jackie made up some or all of her story, and have a way to move forward that isn’t just “well, they COULD have done it.” Blame should be put on RS for not doing enough due diligence, and not standing by their source and their reporting. From the story, it seems there were numerous other women who were raped at UVA and received a similar reception from the administration. Tell their story. Find some stories, that while less sensational, are part of an all-too-familiar pattern at universities like UVA. Make the narrative about the experience of other survivors rather than about Jackie’s experience.

    • ForAwareness says:

      I agree that we should NOT ignore the inconsistencies and that we shouldn’t just dismiss the fact that this story has spiraled out of control – however, Rolling Stone’s apology was horrifying: they said they misplaced their trust in Jackie. What a ridiculous and irresponsible thing to say. Do you homework, RS, and apologize for NOT doing it – don’t blame a clearly traumatized person for your shitty journalism. Whatever happened to Jackie, Rolling Stone should have done its homework and the fact that it didn’t means that this story and the focus on the possible deceit by one person is being treated like reports of rape and sexual assault should all be called into question, when it’s honestly already hard enough for women to speak up at all about being assaulted – especially by peers. “Date rape” constitutes the majority of sexual assault cases — it is horrifyingly terrible to have to tell anyone about that in a peer group that would never think anyone within it would be capable of coercing a woman to have sex. What I’m saying is: it’s hard enough, and the way RS handled this matter – and the backlash Jackie herself is getting – are only going to contribute more to a very strong rape culture in which women’s accounts are demeaned when there are no independent witnesses – by peers, family, friends, university systems, and police. Don’t even get me started on how difficult it can be for poor white women and poor women of color to even be taken seriously by cops. Don’t get me started on how difficult it can be for sex workers who have been raped to be taken seriously by ANYONE. As a former medical advocate and rape crisis intervention counselor who has worked with survivors in ERs and has interacted frequently with police officers taking reports, I have seen women who clearly were just assaulted being re-traumatized by disbelieving officers who ask invasive and suspicious questions and who have outright denigrated the survivor to my face. I really cannot even.

      I agree, though, that feminists cannot writ large just ignore the fact that Jackie’s story may be false. I think we can do the both/and approach – it is too bad things were handled this way, it is too bad that this story turned out to not be true AND college campus sexual assault is very real, very bad, and what are we as a culture going to do about it?

  2. The reason why this story rang true to so many people is not because they have all been gang raped but because it is the story being peddled by people paid by the government to do precisely that. Yes police officers can be insensitive but it is by no means restricted to violence against women . It is part of a desensitizing that dealing with criminality can cause. I also find it quite illuminating when an ex rape crisis counselor basically says it’s too bad this gang rape didn’t happen.

  3. Thank you so much. The only way to make this less prevalent is by talking about it and preparing women to join together when it happens to one of us.

  4. The REASON Jackie’ story is getting endlessly nitpicked it that for some bizarre reason feminists keep trying to defend her. For every article that comes out defending her, another one has to be written debunking her.
    People who care about ending sexual assault should quickly and ruthlessly abandoned the liar and focused on true cases. When you cling to falsehoods, it undermines your credibility, and the credibility of the cause.

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