feature image via Washington Post
In the midst of the heartbreaking shitshow of Rolling Stone’s half-baked campus rape exposé, something beautiful is simmering: friends are coming to Jackie’s defense, University of Virginia leadership has promised to investigate sexual assault at the school and reform its policies as needed, and a national conversation about rape culture on college campuses seems to be taking root with the potential to create serious movement.
There have been plenty of awful moments since we talked about this story over the weekend, most notably when someone tried (and, it seems, failed) to reveal the Rolling Stone subject’s identity and personal information to a writhing mass of 4chan scum. National news organizations have devoted countless column inches to questioning whether rape culture exists and insisting that false accusations aren’t as rare as we think.
And, most horrifically, as Lindy West writes in The Guardian, “Jackie became an anti-feminist rallying point – incontrovertible “proof” that women maliciously (or recreationally, even) lie about rape to ruin men’s lives, and that “rape culture” is nothing but hysterical feminist propaganda.”
It’s a demoralizing moment for anti-rape activists, West writes, and she’s right. But women and advocates are proving they have a lot of fight left in them. In many ways, women, communities and even institutions are responding to the situation in ways that can bring us hope. At UVA, for example, students, faculty and librarians are collaborating on a project called Take Back the Archive, which is “meant to preserve, visualize, and contextualize the history of rape and sexual violence at the University of Virginia, honoring individual stories and documenting systemic issues and trends.” It’s an opportunity for a community to work together instead of relying on magazine reporters and outside activists to communicate about something that impacts the whole campus. (Rolling Stone updated its retraction to accept the blame for the story (how novel!) and say it will continue investigating the case.)
Emily Clark, Jackie’s former roommate, wrote a moving letter supporting Jackie’s story and explaining in just a few words why this moment matters so much:
We are in the public eye right now, and we can either let that cripple us, and shove us back into the mold of a perfect institution, or we can recognize that we have flaws, but that we work to reconcile them. Sexual assault is not just a UVA issue, but UVA is where this issue has come to the forefront.
And it seems UVA leadership is sincerely committed to addressing the issue in a meaningful way. Greek activities at the university remain suspended “to give the university and Greek leadership a pause to identify solutions.” People on the ground at UVA understand what many in the media have missed: The story here is not that one young woman’s account of her assault raises a few questions; it’s that it reflects the experience of thousands of women at UVA and nationwide. The misogynist responses from 4chan users and nationally reputed publications indicate the scope of the impact this ongoing conversation could have on a culture that consistently ignores women who are harmed or reviolates them to shut them up. With hashtags like #IStandWithJackie and projects like Take Back The Archive, people are refusing to shut up and to participate in the silencing and abuse of others. Writers and activists are demanding that we don’t believe the alleged assailants out of hand while tarring and feathering victims. At Shakesville, for example, Aphra Behn has an excellent breakdown of the ways Phi Kappa Psi’s statement in its own defense should prompt more investigation, not less.
It’s the first time since Steubenville that we are having a truly national conversation about sexual assault, and it’s a chance to push for movement in new ways. On a small scale, the University of Virginia and local authorities have a responsibility to investigate Jackie’s case, if she wishes for that to happen, and find out what happened to her that September 2012 night and who is responsible. As feminists and anti-rape activists, we must try to process the horror of what happened to Jackie and what happens to so many people so often — this stunning writing by Sarah Jeong is one place to start. And then, we must use this moment to write, think, share and act. I don’t mean to exploit Jackie’s story and use it for our own purposes — rather, let’s take advantage of a moment when people are thinking a little more carefully about stories, statistics and ideas about sexual assault. We must avoid a pattern of “having The Conversation about rape” every two years when something so horrific happens that people outside our circles can’t ignore it anymore. People are listening right now, and it’s time to get them on board with the fight.
What kinds of things are happening on your campuses and in your communities after the Rolling Stone story? What opportunities do you see for change? Let’s talk about it.