Reading Rolling Stone’s article about the gang rape at the University of Virginia made bile rise in your throat, tears sting your eyes, and an emptiness grow inside you that anyone could be brutalized and dehumanized to such an extent. Maybe you had to walk away a few times, unable to stomach reading it at one sitting. Perhaps your first thought was for all the women you know in college and felt yourself filled with fear that it could be them. It’s even possible it brought back long buried but never forgotten memories of your own of close calls or nights you wish you’d been anywhere else.
Jackie’s story made you feel. Its sensationalist portrayal of a vicious gang rape transported you into a darkened hazy room the likes of which you see on “American Horror Story,” not at the “Ivy League of the South.” It filled you with rage that this could be happening on our campuses, where instead of being a bastion of learning, social status and the predatory sexual dominance of frat boys are given priority. You were enraged that a school would actively hide cases of sexual “misconduct” from its records because “No one wants to go to a rape school,” and when you read that her friends actively discouraged her from seeking help because it would hurt their social status you despaired for humanity.
The story spread across airwaves, social media, and campuses. UVa’s reputation was unalterably and rightfully sullied as students tagged the building of the frat in question, rallied for change, and demanded their school right the wrongs decades in the making. The ongoing investigation of 55 colleges for mishandling sexual assault under Title IX was finally being taken seriously by the nation. Parents, students, and faculty alike were saying “No more.”
Through its horror, Jackie’s story was an impetus, a fire lit in the hearts and minds that the time had come to stop letting rapists get away, to stop letting fear and peer pressure let barbaric acts be acceptable behavior in our society, and to shift the impetus of responsibility for stoping rape off the victims and on to the rapists. Finally, we thought, maybe things will change.
And now it has come to light that maybe Jackie’s story wasn’t entirely true. That this graphic depiction was a combination of Rolling Stone’s biased and shoddy journalism predetermining the story without all the facts, and a girl who never wanted to share her tale, who suffers from PTSD, and may not be able to ever remember accurately what happened. This girl who hid her identity and that of her rapists, who never wanted to press charges, and asked to be taken out of the story is now having her account picked apart and derailed. Her friends and activists are doubting her, Rolling Stone is revoking their support, and all the details that viscerally grabbed the nation by its guts are being doubted. It’s the Duke case all over again, a woman cried rape, Rolling Stone jumped on the bandwagon, and in the end that case was also unraveled. It’s the same story, again and again, that discredits rape victims every day.
So how are we meant to feel now? Angry? Duped? Disillusioned that yet again, right as the eyes of the world were taking seriously the very real facet of rape and sexual assault on our college campuses, that with one story’s unraveling so too goes all that progress?
So I say to you, so what? So what if this instance was more fictional than fact and didn’t actually happen to Jackie? Do we actually want anyone to have gone through this? This story was a shock and awe campaign that forced even the most ardent of rape culture deniers to stand up in horror and demand action.
We imagined ourselves, our sisters, daughters, and friends in the same situation. The countless women on that campus that have been raped, assaulted, harassed, and abused in frat parties and treated like they were nothing but an object to be used empathized with the story. Women across UVa and campuses across the nation were given courage to tell their stories of rape and of times they’d gone to their own school officials and been discouraged to report it. The proof is everywhere that the culture of sexaul assault described is a systemic problem, and not limited to this one brutality. That’s why women and men alike took to the streets, to the papers, and the Internet; they rallied and said enough is enough and we will not stand for this anymore.
And that is because in that story we were all Jackie. There are thousands of other Jackies whose stories are just as horrific and damning and what did it hurt? Yes Greek life was temporarily shut down for a few weeks at a school and investigations were created, but no names were released, no lives were ruined. Instead a school that knew this was a systemic problem took action and with the eyes of the world upon it took responsibility and committed to stopping this from happening. The rape culture we try so hard to deny was brought out from its diseased shadows and shocked people with its true face. Schools across the nation are scared because they knew it could have just as easily been their names in the news and the fear of that backlash can beget the change we so desperately need.
Don’t let the holes in this story diminish your rage, do not let the fire burning across our schools and nation be smothered by shoddy journalism and a troubled and traumatized girl who has clearly suffered. Don’t let Rolling Stone pass the onus of fact finding onto victims for their own failure to investigate. Don’t let this systemic disease fester and grow because of doubt and disdain.
Fan the flames, stand strong, and remember when you were Jackie. Remember how that felt.
And don’t ever let it happen again.