A Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia has, in the eyes of many in the media, gone from bombshell reporting to journalistic malpractice in the bat of an eye.
The piece achieves its power with a difficult-to-read opening about the protagonist of the story, Jackie, arriving with a date at a fraternity party where a trap has been set by frat brothers to take turns brutally raping her for hours.
The details of this crime are practically unspeakable. The shock of it led many people to recoil in horror and ask, “How could this have happened at such a respectable school?” Upon further reflection, people began to ask, “Could this really have happened?”
First, there’s the scale of the crime. No one doubts the existence of sociopaths on campus, but nine of them conspiring together at one fraternity in an act so depraved it could be something out of a West African civil war?
Then there are the details. If the gang rape was premeditated, why did the fraternity brothers leave a glass table in the room, which Jackie was smashed through in the initial attack, with the subsequent assaults taking place on the shards?
Would Jackie’s friends, seeing her bruised, cut and traumatized, really have stood around debating how it would affect their social status if she dared report the crime?
Perhaps all of this happened (life is full of evil and improbabilities), but it is impossible to know one way or another from reading the story, which marshals little evidence beyond Jackie’s own testimony. Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn’t talk to the accused students, and she wouldn’t tell The Washington Post whether she even knew their names.
Almost as shocking as the original incident is the fact that Jackie never reported it to the police. If Rolling Stone is to be believed, the UVA administration didn’t really encourage her to do so, and even as she was talking to the magazine for a report that would make national waves, she still hadn’t reported her tormentors to law enforcement.
Even considering her trauma and fragile psychological state, this is an extraordinary lapse. By her account, Phi Kappa Psi isn’t a fraternity so much as a criminal gang committed to sexual violence. If this is true, Phi Kappa Psi doesn’t merely deserve to have its operations suspended; it should be razed, and its brothers should rot in jail.
Bizarrely, prosecution of rapists isn’t particularly high on the list of priorities of many of the same feminists who reflexively credit the UVA story. The feminist agenda on campus aims to define ambiguous sexual encounters as rape at the same time it seeks to empower college administrations, instead of the criminal-justice system, to handle sexual-assault allegations.
Jed Rubenfeld of Yale Law School has explained why both ends of this equation are wrong. The new standard for sexual consent — spelled out in elaborate campus rules governing every step of a sexual encounter — “encourages people to think of themselves as sexual assault victims when there was no assault.” Meanwhile, campus trials lack the rigor (and procedural protections for defendants) of the criminal-justice system, and result in relatively minor punishments like counseling and suspensions.
Schools should be encouraging victims to go to the police, as befits any other crime. No one would ever think to handle an armed robbery with a campus hearing and a disciplinary slap on the wrist.
The other campus imperative should be better controlling the alcohol-fueled party scene that has become an entitlement of young adulthood in America. Much of what feminists call rape culture is what Heather Mac Donald, in a characteristically brilliant essay for The Weekly Standard, deems “a squalid hook-up scene, the result of jettisoning all normative checks on promiscuous behavior.”
At UVA, the priority should be getting to the truth of Jackie’s story, and either holding accountable the guilty parties or debunking a calumny.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.