Rape culture? It's too real

Story highlights

  • 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

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. This article has been updated in March 2015. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)An investigation by the Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department has found no "substantive basis" to support the allegations of a University of Virginia student that she was gang raped at a fraternity there. The allegations were first revealed in a story in Rolling Stone magazine that was initially widely circulated and then increasingly widely doubted.

Sally Kohn
"That doesn't mean that something terrible didn't happen to Jackie" on the day in question, Police Chief Tim Longo said regarding the UVA student and her allegations. And Longo said he welcomes any further information that may still be out there.
That said, there remains one thing we certainly do know — that gang rapes just like what Jackie originally alleged 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."
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    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.
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    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. And while we don't know whether something terrible happened to Jackie, it would be truly tragic if we let this incident cast doubt on all allegations of rape and sexual assault. Too often rapists are given the benefit of the doubt, even in the case of overwhelming evidence, while female victims are shamed (see multiple Bill Cosby allegations).
    Anti-feminists have it wrong. No one, myself included, wanted Jackie's story to be true. That's absurd and offensive. We should not use this case to undermine the pervasive reality of rape culture. Whether Jackie was or wasn't sexually assaulted doesn't change the fact that many women have experienced sexual assault.
    When feminists raise our voices about rape and sexual assault, we aren't cheering on victimhood. We're screaming for something to be done.