I would begin by saying “unless you’ve been under a rock”, but I know a whole lot of rock dwellers who haven’t heard a thing about this story or the endless discussion going on, mostly on the Internet and cable news. So I’ll begin this way: ICYMI*: Rolling Stone Magazine published an article entitled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” in their November issue. It was written by Sabrina Rubin Erdly, who mostly covers gender and women’s issues.
If you haven’t read the article, you might want to read it for yourself, but be warned, it’s graphic and uses some profane language. Come right back here when you’re done.
The article elicited a range of responses from readers. Mostly horror and revulsion. But enough people, writers, bloggers, and journalists, had questions. Jonah Goldberg of National Review wrote “My immediate reaction to the story was “this is bull****.” If you’ve read the article, there are two key conversations that Jackie, the victim, had with her friends after she was gang raped and beaten for three hours. Lines like “My friend just said, ‘You have to remember where your loyalty lies.’” and this:
“You’re still upset about that?” Andy asked one Friday night when Jackie was crying. Cindy, a self-declared hookup queen, said she didn’t see why Jackie was so bent out of shape. “Why didn’t you have fun with it?” Cindy asked. “A bunch of hot Phi Psi guys?”
Jonah nailed my reaction.
I’m sorry, but those conversations didn’t happen. (One hint it didn’t happen is that if it did, a hole in the ground would open up, Satan would pop out in a swirl of sulfuric smoke, and tip his hat to Cindy.)
Enough journalistic hackles were raised that Rolling Stone walked back most of the basic elements of the article, without going so far as an outright retraction (this is as close as they come, from a magazine which unapologetically stood behind Stephen Glass, fabulist and fabricator extraordinaire). It is very clear that this gang rape didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen to Jackie by the anonymous UVA frat members like she told Erdly. I won’t speculate on what might have actually happened to who by whom.
What we’ve got here is a Rorschach test. What you see in the ink tells more about you than the picture. One reaction is that something as serious as rape shouldn’t be taken so lightly as to print an unverified, unreported story which doesn’t positively identify the attackers except by one first name and the name of a fraternity. This would be like O.J. Simpson publishing “If I Did It” as a series of Rolling Stone articles before the trial, without benefit of any investigation or questions.
It’s rape. People are sent to prison for life for it. A brutal, three-hour gang rape by fraternity brothers during a party would mark the end of life as they know it for the men who did this. The next rape they’d likely witness would be their own, in prison. For Jackie to tell her story to Rolling Stone after keeping it to herself and her friends for two years, not going to the police, and to have the magazine publish it without even calling to verify if her friends really did give her advice from hell itself is a journalistic abomination.
Not only that, but this would also have to be the most cold-hearted, callous, and uncaring act in the history of reporting. Lou Grant is spinning in his syndicated grave. Hearing this story and doing absolutely nothing but writing it up and sending it off to your editor—no calls to police or the DA, no attempt to find the rapists, no attempt at justice—Erdly seems as disconnected and emotionally stunted as Jackie’s “friend” Cindy. I can see how Erdly believed Jackie’s account of those conversations, because apparently to her that’s a normal way to treat your best friend.
By telling a false story, and printing it without confirmation or corroboration, Jackie, Erdly, and Rolling Stone have potentially done more to damage true rape victims and their believability than ten Crystal Magnums could do in her false accusation against Duke lacrosse team members.
Not all college athletes and frat members are rapists. In fact, only a very small number of them are sex offenders. I have two young boys, and I am bringing them up to respect women and treat them like gentlemen. One of the worst things I can imagine for either of my boys would be a rape accusation. Whether true or false, it’s a life-ruining event. If it’s true, then I, my family and my boy has to live with the consequences; if it’s false, the consequences might happen anyway.
I can’t imagine a “rape culture” with so many conscienceless sociopaths that could possibly support the sheer volume of stories some are willing to believe. It’s precisely this kind of rape hysteria that drives colleges to bring all accusations “in house” instead of referring them to law enforcement, where the press could get a whiff of them. Colleges are ill-equipped to deal with rape reporting, investigation and enforcement. They have no incentive to protect the rights of the accused, or for due process, or any legal principles. Their main incentive is to protect the institution, and to set up a padded, safe environment for the students, where there’s no possibility of unwanted sex (and at the same time, promoting a liberal, open-minded campus where sexual exploration is encouraged).
Of course, this is impossible.
A Rape System
The result is a system that helps nobody. I am all for education—telling 18 year-olds what “unwanted sexual advances” are make for good optics, and appears to be helpful, but it’s almost entirely useless. Once kids get to college, they either know how to treat the opposite sex with dignity and respect, or they don’t. A freshman orientation speech, a little book of sex etiquette and a rule book won’t cut it.
Threats of expulsion at the slightest je t’accuse from a jilted girlfriend is a much more powerful motivation for young minds raging with hormones. So what we have is a “rape system”, as Greg Forster wrote, not a “rape culture”.
Our only hope for a solution lies in the nexus between culture and politics. After the revelation of Rolling Stone’s irresponsible behavior, this is probably not the right moment for a major initiative against campus rape. But such a moment will come, and when it does, we should be ready.
Purely “cultural” approaches will not work, for the problem is political: it involves justice and law, and any solution would disrupt organized factions’ access to money and power. But the political solution must simultaneously be a cultural solution. It must create plausibility and credibility for the necessary reforms. We need political action that will strike not just terror but shame and self-loathing in the hearts of those who sustain the rape system, and give ordinary people—the silent frat brother or alumnus, the dean with a terrified young woman in his office—the bravery to do the right thing.
More than anything else, what’s needed is a person who could stand up in front of the community and announce that the rape system’s days were numbered—and be believed. If I were the head of Charlottesville’s prosecutors’ office or president of UVA, I would seriously consider recruiting a former prosecutor or law-enforcement official who had successfully battled organized crime to lead the creation of a new special unit to handle rape accusations. I’d look for someone with a good track record of both nailing the bad buys and protecting the rights of the accused; plenty such people exist.
Basically, Forster is calling for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, College Edition. It’s an interesting idea. But would it work? Let’s look at another institution with a “rape system” problem, with aggressive young men, mixed with women in a closed and social environment: the military.
A New York Times story tells how reports of military sexual assault are up 50% in the past year. The military has a centuries-long history of justice meted out by a chain of command, subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Yet, the military suffers a terrible problem with sexual assaults.
The new statistics show a military struggling to deal with an issue that has gained political attention as more women and men have come forward to say that they do not trust their commanders to properly handle accusations of sexual assault.
…Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, went through a list of steps that the Defense Department has taken in recent months to try to fix the system: creating a victims’ program to offer legal consultation, adding methods to assess how military commanders are performing on issues of “dignity and respect,” and instituting a special program to improve collaboration between investigators.
The final option, taking away sexual misconduct allegations from the chain of command, and giving it to a separate, independent military prosecutor’s office, would take an act of Congress, one which failed to pass in March of this year. I would expect another attempt in 2015, with a strong possibility it might pass and become law.
If the military can’t deal with its “rape system” (and military justice is delivered in a completely different forum than civilian criminal justice), then I doubt any special task force dedicated to college campuses is going to solve the problem.
It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere
Is there really a problem?
I’ll say it again: rape is terrible. It’s life-altering for the victim. It’s not something one simply “gets over” or moves on in life quickly from. Rape, in any form, is a problem, and a scourge. Rapists should be punished, and punished severely. If Jackie’s gang-rape story were true, I would be first in line to suggest some creative, unconstitutional punishment for her attackers (use your imagination—but going medieval on them [NSFW] is certainly in the ballpark).
But Jackie’s story didn’t happen, at least not the way she told it. To some, this doesn’t matter. Zerline Maxwell wrote in the Washington Post that “No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims”.
In important ways, this is wrong. We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. Even if Jackie fabricated her account, U-Va. should have taken her word for it during the period while they endeavored to prove or disprove the accusation. This is not a legal argument about what standards we should use in the courts; it’s a moral one, about what happens outside the legal system.
This suggestion is nothing short of a rollback of our entire legal system: guilty until proved innocent. Maxwell’s weak attempt to separate “the courts” from justice is both false and dangerous. It implies that there’s a moral obligation and deep code of justice beneath the foundation of our criminal justice system, yet not supporting that system. Outside the legal system, we are free to believe what we please, but we are not free to apply that to others’ lives and livelihood. Doing so is what we call vigilante justice: hang’em now and try’em later. Shoot first and ask questions later.
I understand the logic. The logic is to follow a narrative, not a system of justice. There’s rape going on somewhere, so we owe it to anyone reporting a rape to take them seriously. We owe it to all victims of rape to ensure that their stories will be treated with gravitas. And we do owe that.
That’s what the prosecutorial justice system is for: the state provides law enforcement officials, investigators, lawyers, and forensic experts to victims for them to make the case that the victim is indeed telling the truth, and that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s also the state’s responsibility to provide a defense counsel for the accused. But if the accused wants someone other than an underpaid, overworked public defender whose limited budget won’t pay for a proper DNA test, he’s got to pay for it himself.
The Innocence Project has plenty of examples of men who’ve spent years, decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. Mainly murders and rapes. Nathan Brown was released on June 25 after DNA evidence exonerated him from a 1997 attempted rape in Louisiana.
Brown, who is black, was 23-years-old when he was charged with the August 1997 attempted rape of a white woman that occurred in the courtyard of the apartment complex where they both lived. After returning from a night out with friends, the victim was tackled to the ground from behind while walking to her apartment. The assailant bit her neck, ripped her dress open and took her purse before the victim was able to fend him off by striking him with her high heels, which she was carrying. The victim saw him flee on a bike shortly before reporting the incident to a police officer who had been called by neighbors who heard her screams.
The same law enforcement and justice system which is being crucified for Michael Brown’s death is also responsible for many black (and white) men going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Our justice system isn’t perfect, but it’s not worth disassembling just to maintain a narrative.
Is there a “rape culture” on campus? The Campus Sexual Assault Study from 2007 suggests there is. But that all depends on what you consider “rape culture”. The study uses some scary statistics, that “13.7% of undergraduate women had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college,” and of “5,446 women, 28.5% reported having experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault either before or since entering college.”
But what’s a “sexual assault”? It’s quite a lengthy study, so I will summarize. For a criminal sexual assault, forced rape, the percentage was 3.4%. That’s 185 women raped. It’s a high number, given that it should be zero. But that’s not beyond the capability of police to investigate and prosecute. It’s also likely the product of a relatively smaller number of rapists, who tend to rape multiple women. Find the rapists and lock them up, and you cut the number drastically. That’s how law enforcement operates. Schools should not cover this up or bring it in-house, they should promote law enforcement and welcome it.
The other categories of sexual assault in the study are due to incapacitation. Drinking alcohol, passing out, sleeping, or being purposefully drugged. The number of women subjected to “facilitated sexual assault”, or purposeful drugging, is 103, that’s 1.7%. Again, it’s a problem, and one likely committed by a relatively smaller number of serial sex offenders.
Of the rest of the 28.5% who have experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault, the experience ranges from waking up realizing “did I just sleep with him?” to slapping a man in the face for being “fresh”. But the narrative and its conclusions lead to a thought pattern of “someone’s being raped somewhere, so every victim must be believed.” Like Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s song It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, let’s pour ourselves a cup of strong justice, it’s only an accusation, but I don’t care.
As a country, we need to address the cultural issues that drive young college men and women to pursue as much free sex as they can get. We can’t address the physical issues: not that “boys will be boys” but hormones and emotions are not going away. We do have to avoid the stereotyped Izod-wearing Young Republican frat house boys competing for the most marks on their bedposts.
We also have to avoid the stereotyped “she really wants it” girl who deserves the sexual assault she couldn’t escape. We have to deal with frat hazing, drinking, and the black fraternity culture of violent initiations. None of these are easy problems.
But we can’t make the mistake of special pleadings: “a fallacious argument that involves an attempt to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exception.” Rape and sexual assault is a crime. It’s a heinous crime. However, it’s not a special crime that deserves its own justice system.
In America, we follow justice, in all cases. It may be five o’clock somewhere, and there may be a rape going on somewhere, but that does not justify believing a falsehood simply to protect the narrative.
*In Case You Missed It
(image credit: Shutterstock)