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Busting the myth of the 'perfect' rape victim

The flawed Rolling Stone story about sexual assault at UVA was so compelling because it hinged on the myth that victims have to be "perfect."

The story of campus sexual assault did not begin with Rolling Stone’s account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and broader institutional indifference to it. It won’t end it, either, even as important aspects of the reporting have been called into question. But it’s worth asking what it was about this story that made it different, why Jackie’s alleged rape at a fraternity was the one that punctured through the noise — and what that says about us as readers.

The public is still learning about Rolling Stone’s indisputably flawed reporting. The magazine has not been particularly transparent about how it pursued the story, and along with The Washington Post’s re-reporting of the story, people are trying to sift through what’s known, what isn’t, and what can’t be known. But we do know that before the focus turned to the process rather than the substance, the article shocked the national conscience like few others have, forcing the University of Virginia to declare its commitment to reforms and lighting a fire under existing efforts to fix the broken system. 

RELATED: University of Virginia announces task force to address sex assault

It’s an article of faith in journalism that you need a good central "character," or else your audience deserts you. No journalist, including this one, is immune to that pressure. Things like Title IX, due process, standards of evidence, the Clery Act, misconduct boards — these are all dry policy terms that only the most invested reader will stick around for if there isn’t a real life story to be told about how that affects someone. The Rolling Stone article had that character and then some in Jackie, whose horrific experience neatly dispensed with a lot of the ambiguity that often helps sweep sexual assault under the rug.

Rolling Stone defended its decision not to verify details of the ordeal Jackie described, saying it was “trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault.” But given that Jackie told The Washington Post she had wanted to withdraw from the Rolling Stone project altogether and didn’t get her wish, the magazine’s alleged concern about her as a victim rings hollow. The picture that emerges, instead, is of a magazine so invested in using Jackie’s story to represent the broader phenomenon of campus sexual assault that it let very little get in its way.

Why was this particular tale so compelling? Jackie is portrayed in Rolling Stone as a perfect victim, rising above the negative stereotypes that are currency in so many discussions about women, sex and consent. In the magazine's telling, such stereotypes are reinforced as we are asked to identify, above all, with one alleged victim who embodies people's expectations of what rape looks like. 

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In the opening anecdote, Jackie is seen “discreetly spilled her spiked punch onto the sludgy fraternity-house floor. The University of Virginia freshman wasn't a drinker.” In other words, she wasn’t one of those girls who drank and then later regretted her sexual activity, a common rebuttal in conversations about campus rape. Jackie was also on “an actual date” the night she was attacked — the good, old-fashioned kind, not one of these raunchy hookup culture romps supposedly plaguing college life and, in the eyes of some, feeding the sexual assault epidemic. She wore a “tasteful red dress with a high neckline,” with the implication that with her outfit, she really wasn’t asking for it. 

Jackie’s alleged assailants, a group of frat boys, utterly dehumanize her, morphing from smooth, polite young men to monsters who call her “it.” As the story goes, the one member of the group with a shred of decency is peer-pressured into participation. Jackie’s friends were reported to be cartoonishly callous after finding out what happened: "She's gonna be the girl who cried 'rape,' and we'll never be allowed into any frat party again,” one lamented.

Jackie was, according to this telling, a good girl to whom a very bad thing happened. None of this means that Jackie is lying or that she was shading her story in a way most favorable to her, although that might be the case. We don't know whether this narrative came from what Jackie herself believes to be true or how Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the Rolling Stone contributor, chose to tell it. Jackie has stood by the Rolling Stone account to The Washington Post. The real story may never be known.

RELATED: UVA students react to Rolling Stone article

But we do know that the world is full of painful ambiguity, and that people can be deeply hurt and traumatized even by people who don’t always seem like monsters. In fact, that's a major hurdle to justice on campuses, where administrators and law enforcement can see nice boys whose futures they fear ruining. And we know that rape happens to people even if they don't fit how society wants victims to behave — if they get too drunk or wear a low-cut dress or if they consented to some sexual activity but then wanted to stop. Those stories are a lot harder to tell, both for journalists and for victims. 

Advocates often talk about “raising awareness” of something as an unqualified good, but so-called awareness isn’t worth much if it perpetuates myths — say, that women are liars, or that a victim has to have ironclad recall in order to be credible. Another myth: That a story about rape has to be black and white, starring a perfect victim and a perfect set of villains, in order for us to get outraged. That one might be true.