Last month, Rolling Stone published a sensational investigative piece about the brutal gang rape of a young student at the University of Virginia, one of the most elite institutions in America. The story, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, hit like a bombshell. It suggested that the rape was part of a horrific initiation rite. It seemed to confirm people's worst fears about campus rape culture, the depravity of fraternity life and the willful blindness of the administration. Shocked officials quickly shut down the fraternities and vowed to combat their epic rape problem.
But some people thought parts of the story didn't add up. For example, "Jackie," the victim, said she had been raped repeatedly while lying on shards of glass. Yet she appeared to have no injuries from the glass, friends later told The Washington Post. Rolling Stone said the reporter had interviewed "dozens" of people who knew Jackie well, including her closest friends. But when other reporters contacted some of these friends, they took issue with some key details and said they'd come to doubt large parts of her story. On top of that, none of the perpetrators – two of whom Jackie could identify – were contacted by the reporter. It appears that the one and only source for the horrific tale is Jackie herself.
The first thing you learn in journalism is that the more sensational a story seems, the more evidence you need in order to run it. So why didn't the magazine demand a single shred of corroborating evidence? Because, as Rolling Stone's managing editor explained, Jackie seemed credible, so they believed her. She insisted that her tormentors not be contacted, so they weren't.
But the real reason is that they wanted to believe her. "Rape culture" is in the air. Rolling Stone wanted to make waves as a serious journalistic player. Ms. Erdely set out to find an awful case to hang her story on. What she came up with was the script for a Z-grade porn-horror movie.
But why should we be surprised? We've seen this script before. It's what we get during moral panics. During the 1980s and 90s, North America was swept by not one but two mass sexual hysterias. One was a so-called epidemic of child abuse, often committed by daycare workers against children scarcely old enough to talk. Under repeated interrogation by concerned officials, many of the kids concocted fanciful tales of extreme torture, even flights on broomsticks. The mantra was: Children do not lie! And so adults wound up spending years in jail for imaginary crimes.
The other panic was about repressed memories of childhood abuse. These memories were so traumatic that people (usually women) buried them for years, then recovered them in adulthood with the aid of sympathetic therapists. Hundreds of books and articles related the harrowing accounts. "Repressed memory syndrome" was eventually repudiated by the psychiatric industry, but not before many lives and families were destroyed.
Child abuse is all too real, of course, as is rape. But the insistence that that either one is epidemic says more about popular cultural beliefs than about the truth. Because the truth is that U.S. rape rates are the lowest they've been in decades, and there are no credible accounts of organized gang rape as a fraternity initiation rite.
Is Jackie's story a hoax? I don't think so. I think it's likely that something traumatic happened to her, and that she was badly rattled by it. She may believe that everything she said is true. Rolling Stone likely published the article in good faith. Nonetheless, it's guilty of extreme journalistic negligence and is now attempting an epic climbdown. Maybe this marks the high-water mark of rape hysteria. I hope so.