So I’m a bit late in joining the party on this one – but not for no reason! I’ve had a cold or the flu, not sure which, but I am sure that it was terrible. Anyways, I’ve been thinking about that Rolling Stone article about a college freshman who the article calls “Jackie.” I’m sure many of you are familiar with the article that details a horrific gang rape and the history of lack of response to sexual assault by UVA, “Jackie’s” school. The fallout from this article has been tremendous and unfortunately predictable. First the survivor’s account was discredited, without anyone considering why this might be or how it would be a reasonable survival tactic for a survivor to intentionally change details of an assault to protect her identity – so much for that. I know that if I were to relay to, what is essentially an entertainment magazine, the details of something horrible that happened to me, I would change details beyond my first name for my own safety. Then of course, this entertainment magazine had the audacity to blame the victim when in fact much of this probably could have been foreseen and addressed prior to print. I mean, seriously, did the magazine not consider that Jackie may have misstated facts due to trauma or tried to protect herself by changing many of the facts? At the ripe old age of 20, it is unlikely (and at this point, apparent) that she understood the reality that people would begin digging into her story and that many of these people would have their own biases and would be ignorant and insensitive to the elements of trauma and self-protection that may have led a young woman to change the facts of her story.
This was all back in December and the public reaction was, to me, disturbing, even if predictable. I mean, rape culture is frighteningly real. If a young person, especially a young woman, dares to challenge the misogyny that creates and perpetuates such a culture then the powers that be (so to speak) will have a temper tantrum of epic proportions and do everything to make her look bad and reel the rest of us in with their controlling and manipulative tactics. But I didn’t think much else beyond that. A couple of weeks ago, when it was announced that Charlottesville Police could not find substantial evidence to confirm that “Jackie’s” rape did occur, the story grabbed my attention and this time more firmly. I just felt that people weren’t accurately, or perhaps thoroughly, defending “Jackie.” Many people were acknowledging the effects and complexities of trauma and stating this might be the reason that “Jackie’s” story didn’t quite add up. And it’s absolutely true that trauma survivors’ memories of the trauma can be very blurry. And if there’s complex trauma a survivor may even mix up two separate trauma. “Jackie” certainly owes us no further disclosures about any further trauma history she may or may not have. But there was no mention of complex trauma in the greater media discourse on “Jackie.” Not that we know this is her experience but it certainly is a possibility. And more than that, it just felt like something was missing – not from her account but from our ability to understand and support survivors. And because of our societal failures, I began to really question why there may have been inaccuracies in her story. And I hate to admit it but I have to admit it, for a brief moment, I even began to doubt “Jackie.” I have to admit that because that says something. I mean, I work in the Domestic Violence field. I know better. I know that misogyny runs deep and is so entrenched in our society and there are a million reasons why “Jackie’s” story has discrepancies. I know that there are usually good explanations for discrepancies in rape accounts, when and should they arise. And yet. I began to doubt. Because our culture is still so permissive towards rape and dismissive of survivors that anyone can come to doubt a survivor and thus, unintentionally collude with the perpetrator. That is rape culture.
But before I got too far sucked into rape culture, I came across an article that pointed out that “Jackie” actually may have intentionally lied – not because she is a liar but because she is courageously sharing her story and went to great lengths to protect her identity. If that is in fact what happened, it is smart. But that’s the thing about rape culture. In rape culture, what is natural, even smart, of survivors to do is ridiculed, dismissed and discredited by the larger society. The victim is put on trial and the perpetrators receive an apology. I mean, in their retraction Rolling Stone says they should have reached out to the men “Jackie” says assaulted her. WTF??!!! How daft can you be? I mean, first of all there is the fact that lying, denying, minimizing and dismissing a survivor’s disclosure is exactly what enables rape culture’s very existence. If people who rape readily admitted to it, how would that change our societal view and how easily could they continue to get away with it? (spoiler alert – it would drastically alter our views on rape and it would be much harder for people to get away with rape/for rape to exist). In addition, what about her safety?? Clearly, “Jackie” is at least trying to protect herself by changing her name, if not other details about herself and the assault. I’m sure that besides the public scrutiny and humiliation that would come with a public disclosure, she is worried about retaliation from her assailants for disclosing. You absolutely cannot expect that there will not be ramifications for a survivor if you, some seemingly neutral third party, come in and start asking questions. For the love of goodness, that is one of the parts of this story that most makes my blood boil.
In the end, none of this should even need to be discussed. The fact that we believe an accused rapist over a victim says a lot about our society. When will we understand that not believing a victim is incredibly damaging to that person? And we shouldn’t need explanations for holes or discrepancies or inaccuracies in survivor’s disclosures. In the end, we should be aware that false disclosures are extremely rare and it is far more likely that a survivors are just doing their best to cope and survive and discrepancies should be understood as tactics to do just that, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
In the mean time, we will have a “Jackie,” a young woman who is so brave but then has everything thrown back in her face because rape culture. This is why most survivors don’t report or they retract. Because of insensitivity like this and because of how much worse a disclosure can make the whole thing. Because, bottom line, our culture of rape makes ridiculing victims the norm so that sexual assault can continue.