It is with a heavy heart and a furrowed brow that I must conclude this afternoon that Rolling Stone, once a venerated pop-culture institution, is a rape-apology website. A few hours ago, in a “note to our readers,” the magazine cast aspersions on its own story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, doing a disservice to women everywhere and buying into an anti-female, denialist agenda that needs smashing from the ground up. As students of feminism know, any institution that would question the testimony of a young woman is by definition buying into a culture of “skepticism” that holds women to be untrustworthy and wishes to derail any conversation about Rape Culture in favor of maintaining the patriarchy and the status quo.
Rolling Stone claims today that it has “concerns about the evidence.” This, I’m afraid, is nothing more than coded obfuscation. Here, the outfit is demonstrating an appalling unwillingness to prioritize the “she said” part of its investigation, thereby bowing to those who would scrutinize and scoff at the lived experience of women everywhere. When the magazine refers to “new information” and to “discrepancies” in the alleged victim’s “account,” it is merely attempting to draw attention from broader truths about sexual violence. When it throws its source under the bus, conceding that it has “come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” it is broadcasting, loud and clear, that women are not to be believed – effectively declaring them, in fact, second-class citizens. “Rape apologists,” Slate’s Amanda Marcotte clarifies, “think that if they can ‘discredit’ one rape story, that means no other rape stories can be true, either.” It is sad to see an institution such as Rolling Stone harboring such disgraceful aspirations. As Jezebel’s Anna Merlan might say: They are “idiots” — yet more people hellbent on teaching our society a class that Rachel Sklar calls “Rape denial 101.”
Worse, it is increasingly clear that Rolling Stone is not only indulging in one of the most high-profile examples of rape apology in recent memory, but that it is also keen to blame the victim. In its retraction, the outfit squarely places the responsibility for the mistake on Jackie herself — a classic move:
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. 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.
Sadly, this sort of behavior quickly trickles down. Reading the (white cis-male) T. Rees Shapiro in the Washington Post today, one can do little but conclude that even Jackie’s schoolmates are in on the conspiracy — ready to go to any length to pretend that there is no crisis before our eyes. “A group of Jackie’s close friends,” the Post confirms, “who are sex assault advocates at U-Va. . . . have come to doubt her account.” Their excuse is that “details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days,” and that “a name of an alleged attacker that Jackie provided to them for the first time this week, for example, turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.”
Conservatives and those who will claim to be interested in “evidence” and “reason” will tell you that because we are dealing here with a claim that can be proven or disproven such facts are vital. This misses the point entirely. As Salon’s Katie McDonough points out, Jackie’s friends are merely creating “cover for the same tired bullshit: derailing public conversations about rape so that we will talk about virtually anything else.”
The accused fraternity, which the Post records has been “vilified, had its house vandalized and ultimately suspended all of its activities,” released a statement “denying that such an assault took place in its house,” and is now “working with police to determine whether the account of a brutal rape at a party there was true.” Thus far, it has “reviewed the roster of employees,” confirmed that it “did not host ‘a date function or social event’ during the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012,” and recorded that “no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiating process.”
This approach is all wrong, and the fraternity should be ashamed of itself. As Amanda Marcotte notes, “people who worry how a rape accusation can ruin a man’s life don’t worry about how accusing a woman of lying can do the same.” It’s downright appalling that, despite this, those who have been charged in public of planning and executing terrible crimes would stoop to the level of refuting these claims or attempting to verify them independently. Are they not aware of what such a process could do to the reputation of a victim who has merely leveled dubious accusations, or, for that matter, to the cause of social justice in general?
Five words, uttered by the accused, sum up the problem we face: “We vehemently refute this claim.” A more thoughtless and insensitive response, verging on a new targeted assault on women itself, could hardly be possible.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.