Who should we be empowering? Image by Flickr user Katie Tegtmeyer.

Over the past several months, the journalism world has been obsessed with the “A Rape on Campus” debacle from Rolling Stone magazine. For those unfamiliar with the incident, one of Rolling Stone‘s journalists wrote a feature article on a woman who reported that she had been gang-raped at the University of Virginia and then had her victimization ignored by friends and the University alike.

Following the publication of the article, numerous questions were raised about the article’s accuracy and minimal evidence of fact-checking. By the beginning of April 2015, Rolling Stone had retracted the article, and local police had decided that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the report of the rape. The journalist, the woman who reported the rape, and the magazine got nailed in the media for being gullible, a liar, and unethical, respectively.

The biggest concern for many who read the story was, of course, the impact that the incident will have on survivors of sexual assault. Many survivors, even prior to a story like this one, are reluctant to report because they feel judged, harassed, and disbelieved by their audiences. How many of them will now decide not to report their victimization to law enforcement, campus authorities, or even friends?

I’d rather we focus, for a moment, on those audiences instead of on the survivor. A survivor’s anxieties about reporting come from the very real, very cruel responses that so many prior survivors have experienced. Beyond the well-worn “what was she wearing?” trope, many survivors today are faced with accusations that they’ve fabricated their stories in a bid to cover an embarrassing (but consensual) encounter, to obtain fame or money, or to ruin the accused’s reputation(s).


The Rolling Stone‘s image of the UVA rape case. This image courtesy of limitlesstimes.com.

To me, the real damage that was done by the Rolling Stone piece was to validate the opinion of every single person who has ever expressed these beliefs.

Whenever a survivor comes forward, these folks will feel empowered to suspect the survivor’s honesty, accuracy, and motives. They will cite the countless cases of media investigations — Rolling Stone, Duke lacrosse, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, among others — in which a report of rape was “proven” false. Believing that these cases make suspicion an evidence-based approach to sexual assault response, they will maintain the culture of danger that surrounds survivors who disclose.

It is this group of people that is empowered every time the survivor in a high-profile case is discredited and publicly disgraced.

It is this group of people that makes reporting a rape so difficult.

And it is this group of people that does the most to maintain rape culture and the well-being of rapists. How? When survivors are discredited, or don’t come forward at all, their attackers are free to continue with business as usual because this group of people doesn’t bother to investigate fully.

I’ve been focusing on American cases thus far, but the mindset I’m describing is, unfortunately, a global phenomenon. For whatever reason, humans everywhere would prefer to believe that someone is lying, and thus continue to make crimes of sexualized violence possible,

Maybe the next time a high-profile case begins to turn sour, we should ask ourselves what our motives are for tearing a report apart. There’s always the fear of damaging an innocent person’s reputation, certainly, but what else is at stake? The loss of a beloved public icon or a championship sports team? More significant, perhaps, is the threatened loss of our illusion that rapists are seedy strangers hiding in dark alleys. This head-in-the-sand approach to reality is a powerful crutch when we are too cowardly to admit the truth: People who rape look like, and often behave like, ordinary people.

I am ill-equipped to comment on the objective truth of the survivor’s story in the Rolling Stone article. I will say, however, that as long as we make a big production out of discrediting a report of rape, it’s not a victory for journalism ethics or truth-seekers. It’s a victory for the rapist, and the only prize is an ongoing epidemic of sexualized violence: wrongful empowerment at its finest.