Last month, Rolling Stone printed an explosive story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, which quickly became the focus of national outrage. This weekend, Rolling Stone retracted their story, citing discrepancies between the victim’s story and facts later unearthed by other news organizations. The retraction set off a wave of commentary, with many questioning whether the woman featured in the story, “Jackie,” had even been raped. Without a doubt, the failure of Rolling Stone to do its research is troubling — but this doesn’t mean that Jackie wasn’t telling the truth. If anything, this story underscores the absolute necessity of believing victims.
It is important to note that false claims of rape are exceptionally rare; between 2 and 8% of rape allegations are proven to be false. As outlined by Zerlina Maxwell in a recent piece for the Washington Post, there are many reasons why a victim’s memories of her rape may be “fuzzy.” Many survivors struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which may affect memory. They may also feel depressed and isolated, and be in denial about what has happened to them. These realities help to explain the “discrepancies” in Jackie’s story, as well as why so few rapists (approximately 3%) go to prison.
When we disbelieve a woman who says that she was raped, we are saying “that women don’t matter and that they are disposable.” We are saying that her hurt and her pain are less important than what the accused rapist might go through if he were to be accused of rape. This is wrong. Disbelieving women doesn’t just compound their trauma — it also lets a rapist walk free. As a society, we cannot tolerate this.
One of the most striking facts of the story is entirely uncontested: not a single UVA student has ever been expelled for sexual assault. According to Nicole Eramo, Associate Dean of Students and head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, even if a student admits to raping someone — a felony crime — he wouldn’t be expelled. Yet rape victims who appeared before this same board were told that if they spoke about the proceedings, they would be expelled. This is rape culture at its core: a rapist won’t be expelled from college for rape, but his victim could be expelled for talking about it.
In response to the controversy, UVA President Teresa Sullivan announced new measures to address sexual assault on campus, including a new police station, more officers on the street, faculty training for supporting sexual assault survivors, bystander intervention training for students and an additional trauma counselor at its Women’s Center. A bill is pending before the Virginia Legislature that would require schools to report sexual assaults to law enforcement within 48 hours. While we applaud these measures, one critical component is missing: primary prevention efforts (that is, addressing the culture of rape on campus instead of “teaching” women how to not be raped). President Sullivan’s statement to students was heavily focused on how to avoid being raped (including a talk about how alcohol is a tool of predators) and how UVA will respond to future reports of sexual assaults — but notably, did not address how it planned to change the campus culture that led to this controversy. Without a significant shift in the culture so disturbingly portrayed in the Rolling Stone article, it is unlikely that these efforts will have much success in reducing or eliminating the number of campus sexual assaults.
If we hope to end rape culture, and stop sexual assaults, we must focus on eliminating the root causes of gender violence. We can do this by becoming conscious consumers of media, taking the pledge to end gender violence and becoming active participants in the fight to end gender violence . We can also make a conscious effort to believe victims — whether they are accusing Bill Cosby, a priest, a stranger, or the boy next door. “Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” With this in mind, we can move forward in this fight to end gender violence together.