I Believe Jackie: On Credibility, Rape Culture, and Rolling Stone

A 9,000 word Rolling Stone piece about rape culture at the University of Virginia is falling apart at the binding as details of its central narrative, the story of a vicious gang rape at a fraternity party, come under scrutiny.

“Jackie” is the key source in Sabrina Ruben Erdely’s exposé, hailed last month as a strong blow to rape culture at UVA and beyond. She shares the harrowing story of a date with a cute lifeguard and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity member that turned into a gang rape at the frat house in September 2012. Women poured out of the woodwork to share how their own experiences with assault and institutional failure to pursue justice for victims have echoed those faced by Jackie and other rape survivors in the piece. The University publicly announced its ongoing examination of rape on campus and in Greek life and suspended all fraternities until January 9th. It seemed like impact journalism at its finest.

But now, after further investigation spurred in part by a Slate piece questioning why Erdely didn’t speak to the alleged assailants, problems with the piece are surfacing. For example, Phi Kappa Psi says it did not host any events on the weekend Jackie reports the rape occurred and did not have any members who worked at the aquatic center during the fall of 2012. The Washington Post carefully reported the discrepancies and includes additional information from Jackie, the university and the fraternity. Across the Internet, people are using these reporting failures to cast doubt on Jackie’s claims that she was assaulted and dismiss the notion of rape culture entirely. Meanwhile, sexual assault advocates have tweeted that even if Jackie was lying, we still must believe victims because false accusations of rape are incredibly rare.

They’re almost right. Listen: We must believe Jackie. We must not cast her aside because her details of the violent, traumatic event two years ago were not completely accurate. We know that Jackie has been under treatment for PTSD, major side effects of which include memory problems. In the original story, we learn that Jackie didn’t piece together some details, like the location of the frat house, until later and with the help of friends. The search for clarification does not discredit or erase Jackie’s experience as a rape victim. As long as Jackie stands by her story, I will honor it as credible. I respect her pain and I want justice for her.

It’s not clear that Rolling Stone feels the same way. In a statement retracting the story, the magazine states that in the face of discrepancies in her story, “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” Instead of copping to massive journalistic errors, the magazine chose to blame Jackie and their desire to “be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault.”

If these major discrepancies in Jackie’s account were so easy for other students and journalistic outlets to find, Erdely should have found them first. It is clear she did not interview or contact the alleged assailants before publishing the piece, at Jackie’s request. But Erdely is a reporter, not a victim’s advocate or anti-rape activist. Rolling Stone is a national magazine with a long history of longform journalism with political and social impact, not an activist blog or campus anti-rape project whose vital work does not extend beyond the direct testimonies and needs of victims themselves.

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. Jackie’s case has no paper trail and no witnesses besides the assailants. If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk. As Vox puts it, Rolling Stone “let the force of a 9,000-word story on a national problem rest entirely on the memories of a traumatized college student.”

According to the Post, Jackie asked Erdely to be taken out of the piece but the reporter refused to exclude her story. At times, Jackie felt manipulated and “completely out of control of my own story.” It feels like Erdely was more interested in nailing her narrative than justice or integrity for Jackie.

If social media and mainstream blogs are any indication, Phi Kappa Psi is on its way to becoming the next Duke Lacrosse – a highly publicized incident that misogynists will point to as a way to discredit all people, especially young women and students, who experience rape. I worry about how many people won’t come forward about past or future attacks because they’ve been told once again that assault victims shouldn’t be trusted. The University of Virginia promises to maintain its commitments to examining Jackie’s case and stamping out rape campus-wide. That promise may or may not mitigate the negative impact this incident could have on the fight against rape and rape culture. UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan wrote Friday in a statement:

Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus. We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures, and continue to dedicate ourselves to becoming a model institution in our educational programming, in the character of our student culture, and in our care for those who are victims.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan via AP

UVA President Teresa Sullivan via AP

This new information doesn’t erase the reality of a rape-apologist culture that permeates Greek life, campus life, and all our lives. Low-ball statistics say that 18 pecent of college women experience sexual assault on campus. Meanwhile, about three percent of rapists will ever see jail time. Less than two-percent of rape accusations are false — in line with the stats for other crimes.

via The Enliven Project

via The Enliven Project

Jackie’s story inspired many others to come forward with their own, and we need their voices. The original article reveals a deeply ingrained resistance to combatting rape, a culture of fear among students, and a need for campus resources to protect survivors whether they choose to report their assault or just need community support. None of these realities hinge on whether Jackie’s date was a Phi Kappa Psi.

This is a moment for more vigor in the fight against campus rape and rape culture, not less. That fight starts with demanding more — not of victims, but of reporters, institutional leaders, police forces and communities. It starts with believing Jackie.

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. Thanks for writing about this, I’m afraid to read about it from any other sources because people on the internet tend to be horrible everywhere but here.

  2. its take a lot of nerve to not listen to the victim and then throw her under the bus when things don’t match up the way you presented it. nobody is holding rolling stones accountable, they are making it seem like rolling stones was lied to but according to this they just didn’t do their job also, this is the first time that I’m learning that jackie felt manipulated. it was bad before, somehow, its become even worse

  3. The shame of this is there are girls who make false rape reports and it’s completely disgusting when it happens. Girls make false reports for all kinds of morally bankrupt reasons. Some even do it because of mental illness.

    If her allegations are false, real victims, and victim advocates need to stand up against what she did because it’s girls who make false reports that make things hard for real victims.

    There are many times when a victim reports a sex offense and doesn’t want any action taken by police.

    This is a touchy subject no doubt. If the journalist spun the story to further her own career, which is totally believable she ought to lose her job.

    No one should be to quick to believe any information without a complete investigation and supporting evidence. Yes rape is wrong and horrific but you can’t let your emotions dictate opinions on cases.

    • As you can see from the graphic above, there are very few false accounts of rape. It’s falsely reported at a similar rate to all other crimes. Yet we never hear people wringing their hands about false reporting of crime in general. This is because the myth that many women lie about rape is used as a weapon, especially by MRAs, to intimidate rape victims in general, and to sabotage everything feminists are trying to do to dismantle rape culture. The idea that women should pile on behind the MRAs and do their dirty work for them is a dangerous one. Things are hard for real victims with or without the tiny fraction of false allegations.

      • “Yet we never hear people wringing their hands about false reporting of crime in general.”

        Well we should, because the last thing we need is an excuse to take always the Accused right to a Presumption of Innocence. Like it not the burden of proof being on the Accuser is vital to maintaining a free society.

        • It doesn’t take away the accused’s legal right to presumption of innocence in court to support and believe the victim’s sincerity. You can believe the victim believes sincerely in their account of what happened, while suspending judgment as to whether the accusation holds enough legal merit to result in a conviction. Both parties should be presumed to In this case, for example, if the victim was too traumatized to accurately remember or identify her rapist, that might mean that a conviction is impossible. That doesn’t mean that a crime didn’t occur nor should we jump to the conclusion that she was fabricating the story.

    • “No one should be to quick to believe any information without a complete investigation and supporting evidence. Yes rape is wrong and horrific but you can’t let your emotions dictate opinions on cases.”

      I strongly agree. I’d also like to see honest conversations within feminist circles about the rare (but still real) problem of false accusations WITHOUT anyone being called a rape apologist, victim blamer, MRA, etc. (Not that it’s happened on AS specifically, but that’s usually how the conversation goes down from what I’ve seen.) I do believe this issue can be discussed while maintaining respect for survivors of assault.

      • “I strongly agree. I’d also like to see honest conversations within feminist circles about the rare (but still real) problem of false accusations WITHOUT anyone being called a rape apologist, victim blamer, MRA, etc. (Not that it’s happened on AS specifically, but that’s usually how the conversation goes down from what I’ve seen.) I do believe this issue can be discussed while maintaining respect for survivors of assault.”

        I absolutely agree Jackie. It’s important we support survivors, but we can’t in that support, have the pendulum prematurely swing against the accused. You don’t have to be convicted of rape to be damaged by the accusation once you’ve been identified, especially in small communities.

    • “If her allegations are false, real victims, and victim advocates need to stand up against what she did because it’s girls who make false reports that make things hard for real victims.”

      No. It’s not people who make false reports who make things hard for victims. It’s people who doubt any and all accounts of rape as “false reports” who make things hard for victims.

      Also, why “girls”? Why not “women”? Or just “people”?

    • “Innocent until proven guilty” is only for the courts. I find it sad that so many people seem to caution against believing and supporting rape victims, who are furthermore less likely to get a investigation and a day in court, until some supposed time frame in which the investigation is “complete”. The truth is murky and if you are unwilling to believe something, or desperate to believe something, it is easy to cling to that stance under the excuse that you can’t make up (or change) your mind until some asymptotic moment of clarity.

      I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe every rape victim who comes forward that they have been assaulted and violated. Because doing so is so traumatic and difficult that there are very few incentives that would make that suffering worth it. That doesn’t mean every rape accusation should end in a conviction. That doesn’t even mean that every accused person set out in malice to make the victim feel violated. But whether somebody feels they have been raped or sexually assaulted or violated should not ever be a matter of discussion. The discussion should be whether there is cause/evidence to warrant a legal conviction in a particular case.

  4. THANK GOD for this article, because this whole situation and the way it’s been spiraling has been bothering me immensely, and I had nowhere that felt like a safe place to vent my perspective.

    Ever since Rolling Stone started backpedaling, everyone I’ve seen has just been like, “Welp, there we go, she lied, I knew it, more women lying to ruin men’s lives, let’s bring everything back to the way it was and act like nothing happened.”

    And I just want to scream because I still believe her. Her story rings so true to me. I believe her because I’ve seen what happens in fraternities firsthand. I was a member of a sorority in college at a relatively small commuter school, and then I held a volunteer position for about four years at another chapter at a huge school with a big Greek system, so I’ve seen firsthand how out of control fraternities can be.

    This is the thing about the Greek system: fraternities are not supervised. National sororities (that have multiple chapters nationwide, as opposed to local sororities which will usually only have one or two chapters) are governed by this umbrella organization called Panhellenic, that has all these standards that they’re really strict about. They govern how recruitment/pledging works, how chapters should be run, etc. Each sorority has a national board that has more standards on top of that. So when a sorority runs wild and gets into trouble, Panhellenic and the sorority’s national will come swooping in and do some major cleanup work. Obviously it doesn’t always work and sororities do have a lot of problems, but there are at least standards and guidelines in place, and the nationals and Panhellenic have a vested interest in preventing abuse.

    Frats do not have ANY oversight like that. There is no equivalent of Panhellenic–there’s something called IFC, but they don’t do anything. There are no national, across-the-board inter-fraternity standards. Each fraternity has its own policies, but most nationals don’t really pay attention to what their individual chapters are doing unless there’s a complaint. On top of that, even though all these groups are required by the universities to have chapter advisors, I have never heard of a fraternity advisor who attends the chapter’s meetings. At the school I went to as an undergrad, the advisors were all recently graduated guys who would show up to a couple of things a semester–maybe formal and the philanthropy event–and that would be it.

    Which means that you have these groups of teenage and early-20s guys who are piling up into a big house together, where there are no rules, no one paying attention to what they’re doing, and on top of it there’s all the cloak-and-dagger secret society bullshit that makes them think they can (and should) do whatever kind of heinous thing they saw on Animal House and/or Assassin’s Creed as an initiation ritual. If there’s a problem, they don’t really have anywhere to turn to ask advice. They’re on their own. So they go HOG-FREAKING-WILD.

    At the school I attended as an undergrad, there was no Greek housing, and like I said, the community was small, so basically these guys were just sort of drifting around, drinking too much and hazing the hell out of each other, even though half of them felt uncomfortable about it, because they felt like they should–it’s a frat, right? There were problems to be sure, but they didn’t have the size and prestige (not to mention the space–with no Greek housing, the most guys they could cram into a rental house at a time was around 6 or so) to go completely bananas. It was bad, but comparatively it wasn’t that bad.

    At the bigger school I volunteered at? Holy shit, it was a mess. The frats all had houses, these huge mansions that were falling apart at the seams and riddled with bedbugs and had like sofas on the roof and stuff. I’d go to my chapter’s house for meetings and up and down the street would be drunk guys belligerently yelling from the windows and balconies in the middle of the afternoon.

    Both these schools were on the West Coast, where Greek life does not have the same prestige it has back East and especially in the South. The women I encountered through my sorority who were from places like Virginia had such a weird, overly reverent attitude about the sorority. It was actually really creepy to deal with them, because they took it SOOOOO seriously. I mean, hello? It’s just a club? But some of them treated it like their LIVES, more important than family or friends or jobs or reality. A few of them wouldn’t even talk to women who weren’t in the sorority unless they had to. AFTER graduation. YEARS after graduation.

    So I can’t even imagine what it must be like for fraternities back there. If you combine the bizarre, almost religious attitudes towards THE SISTERHOOD that I’ve encountered in women from that area with the unsupervised, out-of-control nature of the frats out on the West Coast? You better fucking believe that Jackie’s tale of UVA sounds about right to me. I find it much, much harder to swallow that she’s making it up than that she’s telling the truth.

    As for the discrepancies in her story? Well, let me just say this: while I was in college, I did a week-long training thing at a school in another state. This school had a big Greek community, and it was my first time seeing an actual Greek row (like I said, no houses at my college). I walked around a maze of streets loaded with mansions, most of them with letters on the front that I had never heard of, because my school only had four frats. When I got back from my training, I mentioned to one of the fraternity guys I knew, “Hey, I saw your house at [School], it was really cool!” And I described a big brick manor with columns and lion statues in the front.

    Later, I looked it up on Google Maps. What I saw was a white wood-frame house. No brick. No columns. No statues. It looked nothing like I remembered. I Google Mapped the whole neighborhood, looked at every frat house in the city. There were no houses like the one I remembered. There were some brick ones, and one with lion statues in the front (for a frat I’d never even heard of), but the actual house I remembered didn’t exist. I could have sworn I knew exactly which frat it was and what street it was on, but the house did not exist.

    And I hadn’t had a traumatic experience. There was no PTSD interfering with my memory. I just didn’t remember because there were too freaking many similar-looking mansions and it was sensory overload.

    Greek rows can be really overwhelming. There’s a lot of big ass houses with a bunch of random Greek letters in them, and many of them are different combinations of the SAME Greek letters. It’s confusing enough for people who are in the Greek community. Most Greeks will eventually get to know the names of the sororities and fraternities at their own school, but if they visit a different school that has different groups, they will have no clue. And if you’re not in the Greek system? It’s even worse! How the hell is Jackie supposed to remember which frat is which, especially when she hasn’t interacted with them that much? After being GANG RAPED?

    I’m sorry, I just can’t believe that she’s lying. I can absolutely believe that she might not remember which house she was at. But in my heart of hearts, I believe Jackie. I’ve seen this system up close too well to not believe her.

  5. I knew the Rolling Stone retraction made me uncomfortable but I couldn’t quite put it into words. Thank you for this. As someone who’s following journalism as a career path, but has no formal journalism education and is only a year into the field, even I know that RS made massive errors. It’s amazing – and yet another example of how patriarchal thinking manifests in our daily lives – that they are not taking on their mistakes and instead are pawning it off on Jackie.

  6. Please take note that in this quoted statement, Teresa Sullivan is not denying the reality of a problem or taking this as an opportunity to deny the problem. We are on safe ground if we persist in demanding action to solve this even if this specific claim is weak. As an INTERSEX feminized male, I never had any problem of this sort in college. It was different in high school where I had to go to great lengths to avoid situations where I might be isolated by adventitious male sexual predators, which is actually more difficult for a male than a female. This category of male sexual predator should not be mistaken for GAY which they are not. They simply have targeted a wider range of prey. The four persons I had most to avoid were all members of the football team. I think Sandusky is consistent with this profile. I simply propose this as an example of how INTERSEX and female experience can intersect. As a footnote, with a size of 32a-27-37, 5/9″, 122 lbs. I did present an attractive nuisance.

    • I have Columbo’s habit of coming back with a P.S. HERE in Charlottesville, people are taking this very seriously, including a major athletic donor whom I see almost every day. So far I have met only one person who dismissed the accusations out-of-hand. I have yet to meet a single person who does not regard this as credible. Very few men will give much thought to how much harder it is for even them to approach women who have been made afraid by there collective behavior. U.Va. is an important part of my life as they have shown the only interest in treating our familial CAH condition, although Martha Jefferson Hospital has kept my brother alive three times. Amendment to the footnote above: I probably never really was a full A-cup. So sad.

  7. I’m actually a student at UVa, and it’s been a pretty surreal past couple of weeks with the anticipation of the article dropping, then the horror of finally reading it, then all the outrage, protest, and action, and now the unraveling of the main narrative. However, the sentiment here is largely unchanged. Everyone is pissed and sad and scared that this happened here, and even if some details are now called into question, the fact we did believe Jackie’s story, in all its horrible detail, is indicative that this rape culture does exist here, and sadly on campuses all across the country. This Politico article written by a UVa student does a pretty good job of capturing that feeling: http://goo.gl/gHKFSi.

    The silver lining here is I believe a lot is going to change. We’ve been forced to confront a deeply ingrained problem, and there is no option besides facing it head on. Students and faculty are way too angry not to see through real and lasting change – you can really feel it just walking around campus. Journalistic errors and questions of details will not be enough to halt momentum that has swelled. It’s been very difficult and painful to face, but I think it will ultimately lead to a safer and better community, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for change on campuses across the country.

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