Skip to main content
tabatha southey

I never imagined I'd be saddened to read of journalists not losing their jobs. Yet on Sunday, when Rolling Stone reacted to a lengthy report by three academics at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on its thoroughly discredited "A Rape on Campus" story by saying no one would lose any work as a result, I was sad.

The author of the piece, freelancer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, spent six weeks scouring several university campuses looking for the story she wanted to tell – or more accurately, for the example she felt best illustrated, in the broadest possible strokes it seems, the narrative she'd assembled.

"Erdely," the Columbia report states, "said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now,' " and I have a fairly good idea how many actual rape cases she must have passed over before arriving at the blockbuster story she chose.

"A Rape on Campus" isn't about, say, a second-year student who went to a party alone, had a few drinks, made out with a guy after he danced with her – a fun-seeming guy who offered to walk her back to her dorm and then raped her, taking apart her life.

Instead it's the story of a woman who went on a proper date, wearing "a tasteful red dress with a high neckline," to a fraternity event with a boy from work.

"Jackie," the reader is assured, "discreetly spilled her spiked punch onto the sludgy fraternity-house floor" – as a lady does, it is implied. Yet, despite this undeserving-of-being-raped behaviour, Jackie was led into a dark room, thrown against a glass table which shattered, punched and gang-raped by seven men, in what is depicted as a horrific fraternity initiation ritual.

Afterward, she called three friends to fetch her and, with the frat house "looming behind them" like some crumbling gothic castle, two of them warned her – we switch genres here, and this part is scripted by John Hughes – that she will be a total social outcast if she reports her rape. This, her stock-character friends are alleged to have done, minus the word alleged, "while Jackie stood behind them, mute in her bloody dress." Lest we missed the point.

Jackie's character is contrasted (by her alone, as no one from Rolling Stone seems to have contacted the trio for corroboration, as is standard journalistic practice) with that of one of her rescuers, "Cindy," who is described as a "self-declared hookup queen."

"Why didn't you have fun with it?" Cindy is said to have asked. "A bunch of hot Phi Psi guys?" suggesting it's only rape if done to a certain kind of girl, in a certain kind of dress.

The option of a small story, well told, was very much not taken by the people at Rolling Stone. Theirs was not a "pedestrian" rape story, with all the messiness one of those often entails, accompanied by all the challenges telling a story like that can present to the writer – in large part because the story challenges the reader.

The reader of Rolling Stone's story is not asked to believe a woman who says she was raped over a man who says she consented. The man is conveniently not in the story (or very possibly anywhere else on this earth, for that matter, as he was never contacted or identified by anyone from the magazine). But the rape and the aftermath are described very much as though the writer saw it all. Issue avoided.

The virtue of the woman who says she was assaulted is never in doubt – it is, in fact, Victorian-novel clear. Well played, Rolling Stone, it's always easier to dodge a question than it is to dispute the validity of its premise. This was very much a rape story that catered to the sensibilities of readers who do not naturally trust women or who see "everyday rapes" as a real problem.

The victim in this story is not "just raped": something that, if she's had sex anyway, is all too often brushed aside as a thing that can just happen to a woman – especially if she is not careful.

No, the victim in the story is raped by many men, for many hours as they egg each other on, inserting a beer bottle into her.

You write a story like this, select it over all the other cases you encounter, and the odds that your reader will see himself in your story – perhaps be forced to recall that time when "C'mon, you know, there was some last-minute resistance," or "She was pretty wasted anyway," or "She wouldn't have been there if she didn't want it" – are pretty slim.

A gang rape by strangers (and these do happen, although there is virtually no evidence at all it happened here) is an easy story to tell. Highlight the rape-case outlier, write it like cheap horror fiction. And far from exposing the problem of rape on campus, as Rolling Stone has sanctimoniously insisted was the aim, you distract people from the issue – all but erasing thousands of below-the-fold rape victims.

Rape, as Rolling Stone chose to define it, is a seven-headed monster in a dark room to which our unsuspecting heroine is led. It's not unlike focusing a story about racism on the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the actual problem of racism will fall back into the abyss.

Far from illuminating a problem, your race story may end up unhelpfully hinting that, if you're black and didn't get that job you were overqualified for or were stopped by cops three times last week in your nice car, you should try to keep that stuff in perspective because, well, lynching.

Rolling Stone's tale of conspiratorial, ritualized rape is, like most tales of women in peril, not feminist at all – the magazine published a bodice-ripper, not a second The Second Sex. Tempting as it is for many, including Ms. Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone, who have pleaded guilty only to being too noble to ask questions, to spin it that way, this was never a case of feminism run amok.

Exploitative, crap journalism is nothing new, and yet distinct lessons can be learned from this example of it. I do hope we can find a place between never questioning a woman when she says she was raped and questioning her way more than everyone else.

There are parallels between this disgraceful episode and the satanic-ritual-daycare-child-sex-abuse panic of the 1980s – often seen as a reaction to a societal shift wherein more women entered the work force, and thus more children attended daycare. The impetus for that alarm (much like the heightened discussion of the number of women pursuing higher education) seemed to be that the trend was somehow unnatural and a close-to-supernaturally-extracted price must be paid.

This is not to suggest that sexual abuse of children – the kind mostly committed by relations of the children and people we know, who rely on the shame of their victims to hide their crimes – is not very real, any more than it is to suggest that rape on campus is not committed and protected in the same manner; only that the problem needs to be addressed calmly and intelligently.