clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rolling Stone and the UVA gang rape controversy, explained

Bob Mical
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

There are two controversies around a Rolling Stone article on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

The first is around the school hugely mishandling an alleged incident of sexual assault. The article details what a freshman named Jackie says she went through after an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house at UVA. It put campus sexual assault back in the news and made UVA a poster child as a university not doing enough to stop it.

The second is over the story itself and its reporting. After Rolling Stone published the article on Nov. 19, reporters at other outlets pointed out that the writer had never contacted the alleged rapists. On Dec. 5, Rolling Stone issued an apology for the story, saying its "trust in [Jackie] was misplaced," as the Washington Post reported major discrepancies in the events the magazine story described. The fraternity issued a statement denying its members were involved.

The article is the story of an horrific alleged gang rape of a freshman at UVA

"A Rape on Campus" tells the story of a UVA freshman named Jackie, who went to her first fraternity party in 2012 as an 18-year-old freshman. The article says she'd been asked to dinner and to the party at the Phi Kappa Psi house by Drew (a pseudonym), a fellow lifeguard at the campus pool. At the party, where Jackie did not drink, Drew took her upstairs to a dark room, where seven men raped her for several hours, including one who penetrated her with a beer bottle.

This is the crux of the scene — a violent, bloody gang rape, powerfully (and truly graphically) described:

"Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn't some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they'd return to the party.

"Grab its motherfucking leg," she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

But this week, details are emerging that cast some doubt on the story as Rolling Stone reported it.

The identity of "Drew" is one of the biggest discrepancies. Jackie did not give Rolling Stone his real, full name, and close friends didn't know it until recently. But friends told the Washington Post his name and description (dimples, blue eyes, dark hair) don't match anyone in Phi Psi, and no member of Phi Psi worked as a lifeguard that year, according to the fraternity.

Jackie says she's sure that her rape occurred at the Phi Psi house — a friend pointed out to her after the fact — on Sept. 28, 2012. The fraternity says it doesn't have a record of a party on that date.

But it seems clear that something traumatic happened to her in the fall of her freshman year. Friends told the Washington Post that she became quiet and withdrawn; she has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She told the Post that the Rolling Stone account was accurate in general but missed some of the details.

UVA didn't inform students about the rape or encourage Jackie to go to the police

Jackie told Rolling Stone that after the rape she called three friends, who urged her not to go to the hospital for fear of the social repercussions if she did so. She spent the rest of her freshman year depressed, even suicidal, and failing classes; when she finally hinted at what had happened, she was sent to Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students in charge of handling all incoming sexual assault reports.

Jackie says Eramo offered her choices: she could go to the police, she could go to the university's Sexual Misconduct Board, or she could have an informal conversation with her attacker. She did not choose to pursue any of those avenues. UVA didn't alert students that a rape had been reported at the fraternity house.

Colleges also have a responsibility under federal law to conduct an independent inquiry when they learn about sexual assault or harassment on campus.

Jackie did not file a complaint, and she says she still does not feel ready to do so. But even when students do file complaints with the Sexual Misconduct Board, the students they're accusing are often found not guilty. One student was raped while she was drunk, passed out, and possibly drugged: "The Sexual Misconduct Board told the young woman it found her 'compelling and believable,' but found the man not guilty."

Since 1998, 183 students have been expelled for cheating, plagiarism, and other academic issues, including one student who was stranded in Greece after being found guilty of plagiarism in a summer program. UVA has never expelled a student for sexual assault.

The story isn't just about Jackie — it's a broad indictment of UVA's culture

The article describes an administration that did not push victims of sexual assault to file charges, and a student culture that's more concerned with partying and binge drinking than with rape victims.

While Jackie's is the main point of view, the article also lays out evidence of years of other sexual assaults that were kept quiet or insufficiently punished, going back to a gang rape at the Phi Psi house in 1984. Jackie says two other students later told her they, too, were gang raped at Phi Psi. The story's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, also talks to a 45-member group of sexual assault survivors on campus about their experiences.

After the article was published, many other women wrote to Rolling Stone to say they, too, had been raped as UVA students or while on campus.

UVA is the latest example of how badly colleges handle sexual assault

In the past two years, victims of sexual assault on college campuses have pressured their universities to change and made preventing and responding to sexual assault a national issue — one that has become a priority the White House.

Under Title IX, which forbids sex discrimination in education, colleges have to deal with sexual assault complaints from their students, even if a police investigation is proceeding at the same time.

Often, victims say colleges haven't done enough. Yale found six students guilty of "nonconsensual sex" in 2013; only one was suspended, and none were expelled. At Columbia, one student is carrying her mattress with her until her assaulter, also accused by two other women but found not guilty by a disciplinary panel, is no longer on campus. And while the Ivy League cases get the most media attention, the Education Department is investigating complaints at big public universities, community colleges, and even a medical school — more than 80 cases in all.

Jackie's story as Rolling Stone reported it is one of the worst; few, if any, other complaints that have been publicly reported on involve the organized, premeditated gang rape of a sober woman.

The controversy is mostly about Rolling Stone, not about the truth of rape allegations

Rolling Stone evidently didn't know Drew's full name, making it impossible to contact him. Jackie says she was pressured to continue participating in the story even when she had second thoughts and wanted out. And the discrepancies that the Washington Post uncovered show that a more measured approach to reporting would have revealed that Jackie's story as she told it wasn't completely solid.

Jackie's story was dramatic and arresting, and it drew even more national attention to the problem of campus rape. It sounds like Rolling Stone decided it was too dramatic to fully check out. But it doesn't change the fact that rape is an underreported crime, or that false reports of rape (which count only criminal allegations, something Jackie never did) are extremely rare — the most rigorous research has found that, at most, 8 percent of reported rapes are false.

But what people will remember is that Rolling Stone told a dramatic story that might not have been true. That's unfortunate on all fronts.