Rolling Stone magazine's unraveling story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia could set back by many years the national movement to discuss and combat sexual assault, survivors and advocates worry.
"I felt like we were almost at a tipping point in this work," said Monika Johnson Hostler, president of National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. "For the first time, we thought people were listening. But we all might be going back to where we were before this."
Rolling Stone printed a bombshell story last month detailing a violent rape at a fraternity house. The story came after two years of unprecedented activism and attention on campus sexual assault, including a White House task force on the issue, multiple congressional hearings and bipartisan legislation at the federal and state levels. At the same time, lawmakers have ramped up scrutiny on how the militaryhandles sexual assault, and multiple women whose rape allegations against comedian Bill Cosby had been ignored for years suddenly seemed to gain traction in the media.
But new facts have emerged in the wake of the Rolling Stone piece that have caused the magazine to revoke its trust in "Jackie," the survivor at the center of the story. "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account," Managing Editor Will Dana said in a statement. "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.
Hostler worries that Rolling Stone's reporting errors will reinforce the tendency to doubt rape survivors, and that victims will be afraid to come forward as they had been for years before the public started to really discuss campus rape and take it seriously.
"I do think this could set us back," she said. "I think it could be a huge, huge distraction to the work we've done in the past few years around sexual violence."
Colby Bruno, a managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, said the controversy will likely play into the "stereotypes that some people in our society are dying to hold onto," which is that most rape victims are lying.
"It will not, however, change the absolute fact that there is an epidemic of campus rape, and it will not change that there are thousands of victims every day who are struggling to find someone who believes them when they are telling the truth," Bruno said.
One reality the public has difficulty understanding, Hostler said, is that it's normal for survivors of intense trauma, particularly sexual trauma, to have inconsistent stories as their brains try to process what happened. There is a body of research that helps explain how a brain tries to protect an individual from a traumatic event like rape.
Stress associated with a trauma and the way a brain responds can make it difficult for someone to accurately recall every detail of their attack, as Michigan State University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell explained during a 2012 National Institute of Justice seminar. So when a victim stumbles or has difficulty piecing details together, Campbell said in an NIJ interview, "it doesn't mean she's lying or making it up as she's going along. She's really having difficulty pulling together the pieces of a traumatic memory and putting it in order."
To be clear, no one from the fraternity, university or anyone with knowledge of Jackie's version of events has stated that she wasn't sexually assaulted. But because the fraternity and The Washington Post have poked some fairly significant holes in Jackie's version of events of the alleged gang rape, it plays into a conception that some of the facts in the article might not be completely accurate.
The community of sexual assault activists is furious at Rolling Stone. Many started tweeting #IStandWithJackie on Friday, though the hashtag started to get hijacked by people trying to play up the case as a false rape allegation.#istandwithjackie Tweets
Some rushed to highlight that false rape reports are very rare -- various peer-reviewed research pins the rate somewhere between 2 and 8 percent. Though because so few women report their assaults at all, it's impossible to tell what the actual rate is of people lying about being raped.
This picking apart of Jackie's story is partly why student activist groups like Know Your IX and End Rape On Campus, which have worked to shine a light on institutional failures handling sexual assault, often advise survivors to try to steer journalists away from intimate details of their attack, and focus more on how their colleges responded. Some have called out reporters for prying beyond what a survivor is comfortable sharing. And indeed, according to The Washington Post, Jackie said she tried to back out of the story altogether at one point.
"[Rolling Stone] published the most graphic details of a traumatic experience, even when Jackie didn't want them to publish," said Alyssa Peterson, an activist with Know Your IX. "They threw her under the bus at the first sign that her recall of a brutal rape wasn't perfect, even though trauma has a strong effect on a story's consistency."
Many sexual assault survivors told The Huffington Post they weren't surprised Jackie's story was critiqued because columnists and fringe bloggers have often cast doubt on campus rape accounts.
"One of the biggest rape myths is women lie about about being raped, and that myth is what's strongly at play right now in the heavy criticism of Jackie right now," said Emily Renda, a survivor at UVA who knows Jackie.
Sexual assault survivor and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki isn't worried that the fallout from Rolling Stone's backtracking will affect the larger movement to address sexual violence on college campuses. She still puts the blame on UVA for not "doing its job" and not properly investigating sexual assaults, something she's been vocal about with other colleges.
"I'm very confident we have facts on our side," Wanjuki said. "The movement is more than one survivor's story."
However, Wanjuki, like others, worries the fallout may make interactions between reporters and survivors more difficult due to increased scrutiny of sexual assault accounts.
"It will be more difficult for the next person who wants to come forward and have their story told and for the next reporter who wants to tell that story," said Tom Mullen, director of public affairs journalism at the University of Richmond and a former newspaper editor in Virginia.
Mullen said considering Rolling Stone's credibility, and the solid credentials of the reporter who wrote the piece, he and many other colleagues pointed out the story to their students as an example of good journalism. It's "a little awkward" to have to backtrack on that, he said.
Now, Mullen is "fearful that other reporters may not be as aggressive on this important issue
out of concern of getting 'Rolling Stoned' on this," he added. It may even chill survivors from speaking out on campus in general.
"It is difficult enough to come forward, knowing that you aren't a perfect victim," Peterson said. "It's even harder when the outlets and the 'advocates' that you trust abandon you instead of believing you."