BALTIMORE — With the account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia debunked by police, advocates for sexual assault survivors are worried a movement that gained tremendous momentum in the past year could suffer a setback.
A Rolling Stone article about a student identified only as “Jackie” described an alleged rape on campus and a culture of binge-drinking and looking the other way when students filed sexual assault complaints. The story intensified the national conversation about rapes on college campuses and prompted changes at the university, but on Monday, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said a months-long investigation turned up no evidence of a sexual assault, or any wrongdoing by the school.
“One false report should not diminish the seriousness with which we take on the challenge of sexual assault on campus,” said Daniel Carter, director of 32 National Campus Safety Initiative and an advocate for sexual assault survivors for more than two decades. “I do think, unfortunately, that such a high-profile discredited story will have negative impacts on people’s willingness to believe survivors when they come forward.”
Police said Jackie refused to talk to them after the article was published in November. In the article, Jackie said she was gang-raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house two years earlier, and the school systematically mishandled sex assault complaints.
The school said it did everything right, including helping “Jackie” reach out to police after she told a dean about a sexual assault.
The story was published just seven months after the Department of Education for the first time publicly disclosed the names of colleges and universities under investigation for violations of Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits gender discrimination on college campuses and has been widely used by survivors of sexual assault to seek justice. The federal list includes University of Virginia and more than 100 other schools.
While the police chief was careful to say that the investigation “cannot rule out that something might have happened to Jackie somewhere and at some time on the evening of Sept. 28, 2012,” he said the department was “simply unable to reach a definitive conclusion.”
Some advocates say the revelations could cause a chilling effect.
“Whether it sets back the cause, I think as far as individual reporting, it’s not an easy answer,” said Laura Dunn, an attorney and founder of SurvJustice, an organization that assists victims. “Some survivors may see this and think twice about reporting, because they’ll be worried about being disbelieved.”
Dunn said she was disappointed by the “sensational journalism.” The fraternity called the article defamation and said it was exploring legal action.
According to FBI reports, only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault reports turn out to be false — a statistic End Rape on Campus co-founder Annie Clark said is in line with other crimes. Clark said even if the Rolling Stone article is questionable, the circumstances described in it are not rare.
She said women who suffer trauma have difficulty remembering details of an attack.
“There’s a much bigger conversation to be had about trauma memory and violence on campus,” said Clark, who has worked with over 100 sexual assault survivors as an advocate. “This reinforces a culture that already exists: If you come forward you won’t be believed, you’ll be shamed and blamed. We’ve been working on trying to fix this for decades.”
In January 2014, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The committee issued a report in April that outlined steps colleges could take to address sexual assaults.
Carter said once discrepancies were discovered in the story, “there was a lot of discussion about how the issue of sexual assault on campus wasn’t as serious as people are making it out to be.”
Liz Seccuro, author of “Crash Into Me,” a memoir that chronicles her own gang-rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house 30 years ago, said the recent announcement by police may re-ignite skepticism that the problem is not as serious, but colleges and universities have already begun to heed the call for reforms. Seccuro was interviewed for the Rolling Stone article, but said she has never met Jackie.
“The average American might say, ‘If she lied, they must all be lying so we shouldn’t pay attention to the issue at all,’ and there will be an immediate chilling effect,” Seccuro said. “People speaking negatively about survivors of campus rape are always vocal; the result of the investigation just gave them a bigger platform. But now we can only go upward. In the end game we’re moving forward, but it’s not without pain in the middle.”
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