Lessons from the Rolling Stone-UVA Controversy: Three Ways to Be an Advocate for Assault Survivors When You Doubt Their Story
Last November, Rolling Stone magazine printed an article that has become incredibly controversial and has raised a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny about victims of sexual assault. It was entitled “A Rape on Campus,” and it documented the story of a girl they referenced as “Jackie,” who alleged she was gang-raped at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, detailed Jackie’s grisly tale of the fraternity-party gang rape and the negligent actions of the UVA administrators to properly assist her or take action against the fraternity.
Shortly after its publication, however, the article came under staunch criticism since some of Jackie’s story could not be corroborated or accounted for. Her alleged descriptions of some of the people and conversations were riddled with inconsistencies. Ultimately, this led to Rolling Stone’s retraction of the story and they subsequently elicited the services of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to review their journalistic process. The idea was to help them understand how they could have published such a fabricated piece when they did not intend to. The full review can be found here.
Besides Rolling Stone getting some egg on their face and negatively affecting the lives of the many people involved in the telling of this story, there is something more damaging that occurred with its publication. As soon as it was realized that Jackie might have falsified her account of the gang rape, the incident became fuel for the pervasive belief that many victims of trauma and sexual assault lie about their experience. The tendency to not believe a victim when they tell their story is an aspect of rape culture that has protected perpetrators for years. The point here is not whether or not Jackie lied about her sexual assault—the point is that one story of a possible rape falsification should not give us the right to doubt every other victim’s story.
Although there are many intricacies and complications with Rolling Stone’s article, it serves as a general reminder about how to handle the stories of trauma victims. Consider these three thoughts if you encounter stories of sexual assault from people in your life:
1. Know the stats. There have been many false statistics thrown around to indicate that anywhere from 1% to 90% of rape survivors lie about their sexual assault. Quite the spectrum, isn’t it? Most studies that have published such statistics have been found flawed and unreliable. In literature published a few years ago, this dynamic was re-evaluated by several studies that passed rigorous methodological methods. These studies found false rape reports constitute anywhere from 2-8% of reported sexual assaults (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009).
The bottom line: false rape reports are rare. Again, it’s important to note that it is unknown if Jackie from the Rolling Stone story was raped. It’s her details of the account that have fallen under scrutiny. Even Police Chief Timothy Longo said that although Jackie’s account of the gang rape could not be corroborated "doesn't mean that something terrible didn't happen to [her]" (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015).
2. Know the signs. Tom Tremblay, a former police officer of the Burlington Police Department recalled what it was like for him whenever he interviewed a rape victim: “Unlike any other crime I responded to in my career, there was always this thought that a rape report was a false report” (Ruiz, 2013). Many in law enforcement might echo his sentiment. Many in the general public might echo his sentiment. Sometimes those in law enforcement (and others) misread cues from those who have recently survived a traumatic event. Often such events are recalled with flat affect from the victim. Or the victim cannot chronologically tell an account of what happened. Sometimes victims tell their story as if they doubt the story themselves—or even laugh nervously as they try to recall specific facts.
There are good reasons for these reactions. When a traumatic event occurs, the brain encodes it in a different way. In short, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the brain structure largely responsible for logic, verbal ability, and accessing declarative memories) becomes impaired, while the amygdala (the brain’s structure responsible for encoding emotional memories) triggers the release of stress hormones and helps record sensory information about the memory (Ruiz, 2013). This is why many trauma survivors cannot readily recall the sequences of events or facts surrounding their assault, but they can recall with vivid detail the smells, sounds, or images they experienced.
For those in positions where they need to corroborate a victim’s story, it’s good to use questions like “What did you smell while this was happening?” “What images stand out to you most from the assault?” “What sounds were going on?” Questions that focus on sensory memory can usually garner information that can often be used to access the needed facts to corroborate the story.
3. Know when to get objective help. Maybe you’re a parent listening to the story of your child. Maybe a friend who was recently victimized just recalled their story to you for the first time. It’s important to know your limitations due to your closeness to the victim. If you are trying to discern the truth about a child’s story, play therapy is a wonderful, non-directive way for trained clinicians to elicit themes from the child’s play that can be informative of what occurred. Proficiently trained play therapists do not direct a child’s play and wait for themes to emerge organically to protect the true inner experiences of the child.
Encourage those loved ones who have experienced a traumatic event to get professional help as they try to make sense of their story and the possible trauma symptoms that may have emerged.
If you’re a police officer or attorney that is working on the prosecution of a sexual assault case, consult with trained trauma professionals so you know how to ask good questions that don’t taint the facts and obscure objectivity.
Jackie’s case in the Rolling Stone feature is not indicative of all survivors of sexual assault. Of course those survivors who are brave enough to have a story published or broadcast about them need to understand they may undergo more scrutiny and fact checking than the average survivor—this is a journalist’s duty. If you are a survivor in such a position, know your limits and if you can withstand that type of scrutiny. If it comes out that Jackie has falsified everything about her rape account, then that’s a sign she needs help and attention as well. Either way is a cry for help and we should listen and do our best to respond within our capacity. And of course, if you are a trauma survivor and are looking for support, feel free to contact me for resources. Trauma is a messy and unfortunate event, and it helps to have someone help you navigate it.
Coronel, S., Coll, S., & Kravitz, D. (2015, April 5). Rolling stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405.
Lonsway, K. A., Archambault, J. & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice: Helping prosecutors give victims a voice, 3(1), 1-11. Retrieved from http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf.
Ruiz, R. (2013, June). Why don’t cops believe rape victims? Brain science helps explain the problem—and solve it. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2013/06/