Rolling Stone magazine retracted its discredited story about a gruesome gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman in a frat house.
Apologies have been made, best journalistic practices questioned and the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, plans to sue. I hope the members get their lives back. On Sunday, reporter Sabrina Erdely apologized to the readers, to the school and to victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of her article.
As false and devastating as that story published last November was, we cannot let it discourage us from talking about sexual violence, one of the most under-reported crimes in our country. According to the Department of Justice, 80 percent of student cases are never brought to police; for non-students, that’s 68 percent.
Women are scared to come forward for many reasons, but one of them is that no one will believe them. The Rolling Stone story may feed that fear.
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In its investigation of the bungled story, a Columbia University Journalism School panel interviewed student Alex Pinkleton, who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years at the University of Virginia. She said Rolling Stone’s epic fail might make it harder to report rapes.
“It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people,” she said, “… because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault.”
Jessie Funk, the coordinator of advocacy for the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA) in Kansas City, says the controversy might distract people from what’s truly important.
“We hope that this story won’t take the focus away from the many survivors that need help and support,” she says. “We have to make sure we have safe campuses and safe communities, and people can start by believing each other, by following proper procedures and having resources. When we turn the issue on false reporting we are ignoring a much larger issue with survivors not feeling comfortable, and they don’t know if they are going to be believed.”
Only about 2 percent to 8 percent of sexual assault reports are fake, according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.
“It’s comforting to focus on false reporting,” Funk says. “It’s scary to think about the reality that so many experience sexual violence (1 in every 6 women, 1 in every 33 men) and so few perpetrators are held accountable.”
And while there was no evidence to support this specific assault at the University of Virginia, there is a problem with how cases have been handled there. It is one of 85 schools — along with the University of Kansas and Kansas State University — under investigation because of the mishandling of sexual violence on campus.
In some cases, just because there might not be any evidence does not mean there was no assault, says Mikah Thompson, Title IX coordinator and director of affirmative action at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (Federal Title IX regulations deal with gender discrimination, including sexual assault.)
“I think people don’t report sexual assault because they do believe no one will believe them and sometimes there is no evidence. I think they are afraid of being attacked for coming forward. One of the things we can do for our students is let them know if they come forward, we respect their wishes. We aren’t just looking for them to come forward to investigate perpetrators, we want to also support the survivor. We offer counseling and do everything we can to help.”
We can all be more helpful and supportive as we talk about rape and assault. Regardless of Rolling Stone, the truth is that America’s problem with sexual violence is no lie.
Make the call
▪ Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault: 816-531-0233 or 913-642-0233
▪ Kansas City Anti-Violence Project: 816-561-0550 (help line for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender)
▪ Rose Brooks Center: 816-861-6100
▪ Safehome: 913-262-2868
▪ Hope House: 816-461-4673
▪ RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network): 800-656-4673