The Correct Solution by Accident

That Columbia Journalism Review post on the Rolling Stone UVA "rape" article is the gift that keeps on giving. Even sillier than Jessica Valenti’s confusion on the point of whether caring more for Jackie would have helped is Amanda Marcotte’s insistence that this story won’t help the "Rape Deniers’" case.


"Rape deniers." OK, she didn’t write the headline (probably). She doesn’t actually believe there are people out there who think rape never happens. (Or does she?) But she does seem to think that there are people out there who want to make this issue about false rape accusations rather than … well, what else is it supposed to be about, one wonders?

Journalistic integrity maybe? Sure, it should be. But in this case that happens to be largely the same issue, because the journalists in question used, as their defense, the idea that people claiming to be victims of sexual assault should be given special deference. From an outside investigation Rolling Stone commissioned:

the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims.

Sorry, but that means part of the reevaluating that needs to be done in this case is precisely on the question of having maybe not been skeptical enough of a claim of rape. You can say, if you like, that we need to be careful that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way into reflexively doubting every accusation we hear, but you can’t very well say that there’s no problem with being overly credulous of "victims" either. This case shows that a lot of damage can result from affording "victims" too much credibility.

And that’s another point where Amanda Marcotte needs to actually look at the issue in front of her: damage. Nowhere in her column is any mention of the real damage that was done by this story – neither of the 4 months of waste police time, the damage to UVa’s reputation, or the damage to the falsely-accused fraternity.

But her behavior is consistent with what experts in the field have reported regarding false rape reports, which is that they are rarely accusations. … This matters, because anti-feminists are surely going to use this story to cast doubts on rape accusations that have nothing to do with this situation. Andrea Tantaros of Fox News has already tried, using this story to argue that the attention paid to the campus rape issue is “a war happening on boys on these college campuses” and that the accused “no opportunity to confront witnesses and to present a defense.” But how could “Drew,” who appears to be a fictional character, have defended himself? And why would he need to, as “Jackie” never reported this rape in the first place?

It’s just sort of breathtaking that anyone would be trying to get off on that technicality at this point. No, "Drew" never actually existed. But that hardly stopped university officials and an angry public from blaming a bunch of people that Jackie very much did accuse by proxy – the members of the fraternity. In fact, the whole bleeding problem with the approach that the social justice movement takes to fighting campus rape is that it very much wants to assign collective blame for something that is not a collective problem. What you hear from activists on this issue has long ago stopped being primarily about standing up for victim protections and has switched instead into blanket accusations that we live in a "rape culture" in which "every man is a potential rapist" and "only MEN can stop rape."

I would LOVE it if people would focus on arresting and punishing only the actual perpetrator. The perpetrator is, after all, the guilty party that deserves that treatment. Absolutely everything that went wrong in this case could have been avoided if we’d stayed focused on just arresting the actual people involved. But that’s precisely what didn’t happen. When holes in Jackie’s story emerged, people’s first response wasn’t "well, we can’t arrest anyone without good evidence." Nope, instead they went for "something happened to her, she’s just confused on the details – so we’ll cast a wide net and punish every frat member on campus in hopes of getting at least one person who might have been involved." When the university was busy banning all fraternities pending the investigation, no one was particularly worried about finding "Drew." They just took her at her word that fraternities regularly indulge in this sort of behavior, and it didn’t occur to anyone that if that were true they should’ve, you know, maybe had a report or two like this before?

“[V]ictims who fabricate a sexual assault report may not want anyone to actually be arrested for the fictional crime,” explain researchers for a report for the National Center for Prosecution of Violence Against Women. “Therefore, they may say that they were sexually assaulted by a stranger or an acquaintance who is only vaguely described and not identified by name.” This makes perfect sense. Fabulists generally do it for sympathy and attention, not because they want anyone to get into trouble.

You’ve gotta love how she sneaks in that admission that people do make false accusations for attention. Alright, now that we’ve granted that obvious point that should never have been controversial to begin with, can we imagine what sort of issue someone seeking attention might glom onto? That’s right, an overpoliticised one! Like, oh, gee, idunno, maybe one where reporters are so eager to publish a party-line story that they just forget they’re supposed to do at least rudimentary checks on their sources? Like one where just a whiff of scandal causes a university to go into panic mode and shut down an entire class of social activity?

Sorry, Ms. Marcotte, but there is hardly a single aspect of this case that doesn’t well demonstrate that we, as a culture, have a serious problem with investing too much credibility in rape accusations. And there is hardly a single negative aspect of this case that a healthier belief in due process rights wouldn’t have cured. You know, be my guest if you want to keep burning that straw man down that there’s this angry mob of "rape deniers" who have never heard of sexual crime occurring anywhere in the world before. The actual complaint on the table has very little to do with that. The actual complaint on the table is precisely that we’ve somehow decided to treat this crime differently in such a way that we feel compelled not just to keep investigating and accusing when there’s no actual evidence of a crime, but to double our efforts on those fronts. If the falser the accusation, the more likely it is to lead to a witch hunt, then something has gone terribly wrong. Let’s work together to fix that, maybe?

Indeed, I really don’t understand this attitude from the feminist perspective either. This would seem to be a golden opportunity to demonstrate some good faith. Rather than saying "people are using this to discredit any and all accusations," as though there were a shadow rape lobby of people who think all drunk girls are fair game, just join cause on the due process front. After all, by your own logic, busting these "Jackie"-style hoaxes and demonstrating that they always have fishy details in common should be the very best available way to prove that concrete accusations against specific people are generally true, right?

But I think I know why you don’t. First, because you’re afraid you’ll turn out to be wrong. Because you know that false allegations against specific people show up in the news too. Second, even if you’re not, this whole movement isn’t really about preventing sexual assault for you, is it? It’s a culture war proxy, and the collective guilt part is the whole point.

Never mind, though, because I’m hoping that while that’s true of a lot of sexual assault activists, it isn’t true of most. Something good can still come of this incident: it can serve to seaparate the wheat of people who are genuinely concerned about creating a safe environment for women on college campuses from the chaff of people like Amanda Marcotte, who just have a political axe to grind and don’t mind leveraging some rape victims to do it.

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