Amid Rolling Stone fallout, will college women be reluctant to report rape?

After Rolling Stone apologized – and then revised its apology – for its story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, advocates for sexual-assault victims are working to ensure that the issue of campus rape doesn't become another casualty.

Steve Helber/AP/File
University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., in November. Rolling Stone is casting doubt on the account it published of a young woman who says she was gang-raped at a fraternity party, saying there now appear to be discrepancies.

In the aftermath of the Rolling Stone apology – and then revision of its apology – of its story of a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, the magazine is a clear loser.

First forced to step back from its story "in the face of new information," and then to revise its statement yet again to cast the blame on itself rather than on "Jackie," the victim of the story, Rolling Stone has seen its reporting and ethics called into question by numerous critics.

Numerous advocates for sexual-assault victims are working to ensure that the issue of campus rape doesn't become another casualty of the Rolling Stone debacle.

While there may have been problems with the Rolling Stone account of the specific event at UVA, they note, that doesn't in any way detract from the gravity or reality of sexual assault as an endemic problem. And the response to the Rolling Stone fallout, they note – by media, universities, and others – matters significantly in how the issue is addressed going forward and how willing other victims are to come forward.

"That’s why we take our response to this so seriously. It needs to be the case that women are more comfortable speaking out about the fact that they’ve been sexually assaulted," says Shaunna Thomas, cofounder of UltraViolet, an organization that works to expose and fight sexism. While details of this one account may now be in doubt, adds Ms. Thomas, UVA has been under federal investigation for inadequately handling sexual-violence complaints for some time.

"The problems at UVA are very real regardless of this particular story, and they’re very real on every single other college campus in this country," says Thomas. "That is the bottom line and hopefully the takeaway other people have coming out of this story."

Since Rolling Stone first issued a statement distancing itself from its story Friday, numerous specific details in the story have been challenged by The Washington Post and other publications, with discrepancies raised by several of Jackie's friends and, supposedly, one of the key men alleged to be a rapist.

Those discrepancies don't necessarily mean an assault didn't occur, and several of Jackie's friends, including her roommate at the time, have said that some traumatizing event happened to Jackie in the fall of 2012. Indeed, the story several of her friends told The Washington Post – that Jackie told her friends she had been forced to perform oral sex by a group of men at a campus party – is horrific in its own right.

Numerous critics took issue with Rolling Stone on Friday when the magazine said that "we have come to the conclusion that our trust in [Jackie] was misplaced" – apparently blaming Jackie rather than taking responsibility for Rolling Stone's own failure to corroborate facts or interview other people. And the magazine eventually removed that sentence, adding another one that reads: "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."

Jackie is now in the midst of a media firestorm, has become the target of some social-media threats, and has reportedly hired a lawyer. And on Monday, three national fraternity- and sorority-related organizations issued a joint call for UVA to reinstate fraternities and sororities on its campus (they had been temporarily suspended following the article) and "issue an apology for its actions of the last two weeks."

But regardless of what happened to Jackie at UVA in the fall of 2012, the real story is the continued prevalence of campus sexual assault and universities' lack of sufficient response to address the issue, say sexual-assault experts.

Getting bogged down in the details of what happened, or didn't happen, to one person two years ago – or, worse, using the doubts around this account to cast doubt on other victims' stories or discourage other victims from coming forward – detracts from what experts say is a serious problem that needs attention.

"In some ways, whether or not a college student told Rolling Stone the truth about being sexually assaulted on campus is irrelevant," wrote Caroline Fairchild in a Fortune commentary Monday. "UVA and other colleges around the country should use the national attention on this issue as an opportunity to enact real change and eradicate rape on campuses."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 of every 5 women report being sexually assaulted at some point in their life. Forty percent of those said the assaults happened during  college.

So far, UVA has been pledging to do just that. Teresa Sullivan, UVA's president, said Friday that "over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today's news must not alter this focus."

And Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, while criticizing Rolling Stone for leaving readers wondering what errors were made in its story, also emphasized that months before the Rolling Stone article came out, the country, the state of Virginia, and UVA had begun to address the crisis of sexual assault on campus.

"Nothing should or will distract from that critical work," Attorney General Herring said in a statement. 

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