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Jezebel Schools Rolling Stone on Campus Rape

Jezebel Schools Rolling Stone on Campus Rape:

This week, in an essay for Jezebel, University of Virginia alum Jia Tolentino, visited her old campus during fraternity and sorority rush week to speak with students about how much life at UVA has changed since Rolling Stone set off a firestorm of controversy in November with an article about an alleged gang rape that took place at the Phi Psi fraternity. The graphic retelling in RS horrified readers and caused the president of UVA to suspend all fraternity (and sorority) activity. But critics were quick to step forward and denounce the “Jackie story,” (as it’s popularly known). They pointed out key factual errors. Under close examination, bit by bit the detailed reporting by Sabrina Rubin Erdely fell apart like a sugar cube in the rain.

Rolling Stone issued a retraction. By then the damage was done, to the believability of victims of assault, to the reputation of Phi Psi, UVA, and to Rolling Stone. Sexual assault is an undeniably real problem, but, sloppy, inaccurate articles about campus rape, designed to grab attention, help no one.

The UVA students Tolentino spoke with admitted the “Jackie story” never sat right with them, because of obviously incorrect details:

In the words of one sorority girl I talked to in Charlottesville: “We knew something was bullshit when she wrote that Phi Psi was a top-tier frat.”

And the problems with Erdely’s inaccuracies went far deeper:

“The article wasn’t right in a factual sense or a justice sense, either,” said Charlotte Cruze. […] “It was about supporting women, but she wrote all the women up as dumb and weak.” She tells me what her sorority sister sent to group text the morning of the article’s release: “She made us look like sex slaves to the patriarchy.”

Tolentino also paints a more complicated picture of frat bros themselves, one of whom told her, “parties aren’t the most important thing about fraternity life.” He suggested actually engaging frats in a productive conversation in order to make change happen—which raises the question, what actually can be done about the campus rape crisis?

Without excusing the Greek system, Tolentino examines the dynamics of frats, isolating what exactly makes frat bros three times more likely to force a sexual assault:

If there is a system-specific problem with the Greek system, it is not “the existence of rapists.” It’s the practices that make these rapists invisible. […] The Greek system is not a hotbed of sexual criminals, but rather a hotbed of people invested in a tradition and lifestyle that inherently allows a tremendous amount to go unseen.

Attempting to penetrate the layers of privilege that encourage rapists and shield them from accountability, both at UVA, and around the country, Tolentino pushes through the systemic effects of sexism, racism, and traditionalism, until she eventually reaches the roots of American society:

All weekend in Charlottesville, this is what I’m thinking: it’s so difficult to get anyone with power and lax accountability—the true American dream, if we’re honest—to ever give any of it up. […] This is the thrust behind Erdely’s article, the reaction, the backlash to the reaction: Someone is finally trying to hold privilege and power accountable for itself. But how? Not with a story that’s not fact-checked.

Ultimately, this failure of the RS article is unforgivable because it cast a long shadow of doubt over all subsequent victims’ stories of abuse, the exact opposite intention. Consider how the rape allegations against Bill Cosby make it clear that it’s hard enough to get people to listen to a woman who claims to have been assaulted. Erdely made the fight harder.

Pushed by her indefatigable desire to dismantle the dynamics of sexual assault, Tolentino surprises herself when she considers a counter-intuitive way to deal with campus rape:

From a sorority sister of mine whose actual sister—also a UVA alum—is now a police officer who works with victimized women: “Make it a taboo for frat boys to hook up with blackout girls,” she said frankly. “Make it so that it’s a safety thing for them. Make it so they will do anything to avoid a girl ‘crying rape.’ Give them a hand signal they can use at parties. Make them say, 'Bro. Protect yourself. She’s wasted. You never know what she’s going to say in the morning.’”

Leave it to a cop to suggest we start thinking like a criminal. But it’s a genius suggestion: focus on the selfish reasons people act or don’t act.

With her deeply insightful essay, Tolentino corrected the record while restoring a bit of lost dignity to her alma mater. But most importantly, she advanced a solution-oriented conversation about consent and sexual assault, which was the intent of the original article.


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