[Ed. Note: This is another guest post from Nicole Bedera. Nicole is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park who studies college sexual assault. She also worked as a Hospital Response Team advocate at the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City.]
A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone published an article detailing a graphic rape at the Phi Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia. For a week, the story was widely shared and more victims of campus sexual assaults came forward to tell their stories. Fraternities closed their doors at universities across the country and school administrators apologized for turning a blind eye. But then it came out that no one had tried to track down the accused perpetrator to get his side of the story. After Phi Kappa Psi gave some evidence that things happened differently than they were conveyed in the article, Rolling Stone retracted their story entirely. As a result, the victim Jackie has been painted as an unreliable witness at best and a fame-mongering liar at worst. But is that the reaction we should be having?
What we’re getting is a unique experience to see is how a sexual assault allegation plays out on a college campus. A victim comes forward after what was likely the most confusing and traumatic night of her life. She tells a story that is heart-wrenching and incredibly hard to believe. At first, the victim is supported and cared for, but to complete an investigation, both sides of the story have to come out. The alleged assailant is contacted and he tells a completely different story. He might say anything from they really had consensual sex to denying knowing her altogether. Now the investigator doubts the victim. The accused tells a more sensible and—honestly—comforting story. But the reality is that rape is never sensible or comforting. When we drop rape investigations after hearing the alibi of the accused, we treat the victim like her story is too graphic for us to want to believe, and the accused like he could never lie, much less rape anyone.
In reality, the truth is somewhere between the victim and the accused’s stories. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that a traumatized victim won’t remember everything perfectly. It is also perfectly reasonable to expect that a rapist will lie to avoid prosecution. The pursuit of the truth during a sexual assault investigation should be thought of as a compromise between two narratives, not a winner-take-all contest for the most reasonable story.
After reading as many articles about UVA as I could get my hands on, I want to piece together a potential compromise for Jackie’s story. I know that there is plenty of information that I don’t know—I don’t work for Rolling Stone or sit on UVA’s Title IX committee—but my point is to demonstrate how to combine new facts with old ones in a sexual assault investigation, not to be the one charged with discovering the real truth.
During her freshman year at UVA, Jackie was invited to a fraternity party by a boy who introduced himself to her as Drew. Since she was invited as his date, she didn’t bring any of her friends. The party that night was unofficial—fraternities can only have a limited number of official events each year, but regularly have unofficial gatherings with alcohol and women. When she got to the fraternity house, Drew immediately met her and started giving her drinks. Jackie was nervous about drinking too much, so she tried to pour them out when he wasn’t looking. As the night went on, he thought that she was drunk. After a while, Drew invited her upstairs. When they arrived, there was a group of other men there, and some of them took turns raping her. Drew never touched her. He belonged to another fraternity who supplied girls for Phi Kappa Psi. This arrangement wasn’t made with the entire fraternity, but instead with a few specific members who kept their actions largely secret from their brothers. By not touching her, he could claim that he had nothing to do with the incident when none of his DNA was found on her body. That tactic kept the rapists anonymous and the supplier free from responsibility.
During the assault, Jackie lost consciousness. She woke up alone and confused later, unsure of where she was and of how many people violated her. She called her friends and asked them to get her, but in her state of trauma, she can’t remember exactly how long that took. She walked as far away from the fraternity as she could while she waited. When they found her, she was visibly shaken and upset. When she told them what happened, some of them talked about wanting to protect their status on campus, so, feeling hurt and judged, she kept the details to herself. Much of what she had already said was misunderstood by first year students who couldn’t understand how something like that could happen to their friend. After some of her friends discouraged her from reporting, Jackie asked to be taken back to her dorm. As Jackie tried to deal with what happened to her, she went through waves of self-blame and fear that made her imagine thousands of possible things that happened to her in the confusion of that night. Some of them felt more real than what she really went through. Years later, her story is mostly true, but some details are missing or confused after all of the remembering and trying to understand how so many people could do something so horrible to her.
In trying to get closer to the truth, Rolling Stone made two terrible mistakes. First, they tried to act as investigators without any experience to do so. Second, they gave up on that task—and on Jackie—when their investigation got hard. Victims deserve better from the journalists who offer to tell their stories. They also deserve better from the people reading them