Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. Watch Don Lemon’s special, “The Cosby Show: A Legend Under Fire,” on CNN on Monday night at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sally Kohn: Facts hazy on UVA rape allegations, but victim-blaming is back in the mix
She says poor Rolling Stone reporting gave some license to discredit notion of rape culture
She cites 4 incidents in past few years where bystanders did nothing to stop gang assaults
Kohn: Feminists don't want UVA rape story to be true; they want women to feel safe to tell of rape
We don’t yet know all the facts behind the now-infamous, poorly fact-checked story in Rolling Stone about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. What we do know: Rolling Stone at first blamed the alleged victim, “Jackie” – rather than its own journalistic sloppiness – for so-called “discrepancies” (before changing its callous statement).
And new reporting by the Washington Post does reveal that Jackie’s friends, cited in the story, say they are skeptical about some of the details. Still, they all believe that Jackie experienced something “horrific” that night, in the words of one, and we do know that Jackie stands by her story. Most of the doubts about it were apparently raised by those she’s accusing, including the fraternity and main alleged assailant – whom, I guess, we’re supposed to believe instead.
But one other thing we do know is that gang rapes just like what Jackie is alleging do happen – too often, and all over America. Here’s one measure: Today the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report showing that 80% of college rapes and sexual assaults go unreported to police, and 67% of such attacks by non-students go unreported. It would be a terrible and infuriating mistake to use the confusion around Jackie’s story as a convenient way to discount this reality.
While Rolling Stone’s reporting was clearly shoddy, for example, some writers who initially poked holes in Jackie’s story did so for ideological motives. For instance, even before the reporting lapses were revealed, conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg called Jackie’s story unbelievable. “It is not credible,” Goldberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t believe it.”
Instead, Goldberg insisted, Jackie’s account was “a convenient conversation for an exposé of rape culture,” something, incidentally, Goldberg also doubts to be real. “‘Rape culture’ suggests that there is a large and obvious belief system that condones and enables rape as an end in itself in America,” Goldberg later wrote in National Review. It’s all hogwash, says Goldberg, alleging that the very idea of “rape culture” is just “an elaborate political lie intended to strengthen the hand of activists.”
In other words, whatever the reality of what happened to Jackie, Goldberg and others were skeptical because they simply don’t believe rapes like that happen with the participation of groups of assailants, let alone the complicity of bystanders. This is where they’re mistaken.
On October 24, 2009, in Richmond, California, a 15-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by a group of young men in a courtyard outside their high school homecoming dance. Six assailants were eventually tried and ultimately pleaded guilty or were convicted. Over two hours, as the assault occurred, as many as 20 other people watched. “As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated,” said Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department. The witnesses didn’t report the crime to police.
On August 12, 2012, a 16-year-old girl who was incapacitated by alcohol was raped by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. In the backseat of a car and later in the basement of a house, the two assailants stripped their victim naked and took turns, one inserting his fingers into her vagina, the other forcing his penis into her mouth. This is not in dispute. Both football players were convicted of the crime.
As the crimes were taking place, friends took pictures that were shared with other friends. Ultimately, Ohio investigators confiscated 17 cell phones used in sharing the pictures. Some of those at the party even posted pictures of the unresponsive girl, being carried by her wrists and ankles, on Twitter with words like “rape” and “drunk girl.” In Steubenville, four adults have been indicted after being accused of covering up the incident, including the school superintendent.
On May 11, 2014, an 18-year-old woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by three students at a party after their high school prom. The three alleged assailants, all prominent athletes, have been charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault and are awaiting trial. According to police, at least one person witnessed the assault in the room where it took place and several other people at the party knew it was happening. But no one stopped it.
In June 2014, a 16-year-old girl went to a party where she was allegedly drugged and raped. She doesn’t remember what happened, only passing out and waking up the next morning with her clothes messed up. But weeks later, the young woman received text messages of photos showing her unconscious and undressed, apparently taken at the same party. The photos went viral on the Internet, with Twitter users posting photos of themselves in the same awkward position, mocking the alleged victim. When the Houston Press asked someone who posted such a picture on Twitter why he did it, he simply said he was “bored at 1 a.m. and decided to wake up” his Twitter feed.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of incidents in which young women have been gang raped while bystanders have either cheered the crime, hidden it or stood by in silence. In the case of Jackie, I believe in innocence until guilt is proven, even as I realize that we have a society where rapists are given the benefit of the doubt, often despite overwhelming evidence, while female victims are shamed (see multiple Bill Cosby allegations).
The fact is, there doesn’t appear to be any incentive for Jackie to have lied. She wasn’t seeking to tell her story in the first place (the Rolling Stone reporter found her), and she must have known that she would face the usual victim shaming and blaming (witness the slime “journalists” who have now published what they allege is Jackie’s full name and address). Indeed, while Jackie named the fraternity involved, she left her alleged assailants’ names out of it, so it’s hard to see what sort of “revenge” agenda could be served by fabrication.
Anti-feminists have it wrong. No one, myself included, wants Jackie’s story to be true (that’s absurd and offensive), but we cannot apologize for erring on the side of a fair, compassionate and credulous hearing of a woman’s account. What feminists want – as we all should – is a culture in which it is safe for women to report sexual assault when it happens, where they can trust that their families, their peers, the police and courts and, yes, the media will respond with sensitivity and compassion, not skepticism and shame.