A horrific article, recently published in Rolling Stone, rocked the University of Virginia. The article told the story of a junior identified as "Jackie," who recounted attending as a bubbly freshman a fraternity date party where she was lured into a dark room, beaten and gang raped by seven men as part of a twisted pledge initiation.
The sickening details set the campus on fire, sparking student protests, a police investigation, a suspension of fraternity life, a media feeding frenzy and panic within the school's administration. Those details, it turns out, weren't entirely true. The fraternity even said it did not host "a date function or social event" on the date the alleged rape happened.
On Friday, after scrutiny from media critics from across the ideological spectrum — the article contained serious holes, multiple inconsistencies and epic failures in fact-checking — Rolling Stone backed down from the story, saying its "trust" in Jackie was "misplaced." Oops. And in an updated apology, the magazine said of its reporting errors, "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."
This sad saga will continue to unfold, but in the meantime, it's worthwhile to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. If you go back and look at Jackie's story through the prism of assumed truth — as many people eagerly did — the initial reaction to it becomes increasingly bizarre.
Jackie's rape account was violent and deeply disturbing. As skeptical Worth magazine editor Richard Bradley pointed out, sections of it (one frat brother allegedly called Jackie "it" while ordering a pledge to grab her leg) were reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs." This was not some drunken misunderstanding at a party. It was the equivalent of a war crime. The perpetrators, if guilty, were monsters.
So it was odd to see how University of Virginia students, long trained in the feminist doctrine of "rape culture," responded to this alleged show of unadulterated evil. They organized — wait for it — a "Slut Walk." In the face of Jackie's story, students, as freshman organizer Maria DeHart told the U.Va. student paper, needed to "fight against this victim-blaming, slut-shaming culture we have that sexualizes women, yet shames them for being sexual."
Wait, what? DeHart has apparently not yet attended the freshman sociology seminar that will inform her that rape is usually about power and violence, not sex. We'll leave that aside for now, however, because things get even weirder. A later protest rally, organized by university faculty — inspired, please remember, by a supposed serious crime with a group of violent assailants still on the loose, free to hurt other women — was officially titled "Take Back the Party."
"Take Back the Party"? What on earth does this even mean? Weren't we talking about a reported gang rape? Rest assured, kids, the U.Va. faculty is no bunch of old, killjoy fuddy-duddies: "We are not here to shut down the party," their public statement assured students. "We are here to support a SAFE social environment for women as well as men. This is a FACULTY action demanding an end to sexual assault at UVA."
Note to the esteemed faculty at U.Va: Writing things in ALL CAPS almost always makes you look a little CRAZY. More important, though, doesn't this all seem terribly blase? The way the faculty statement reads, you'd assume that gang rapes at fraternity events occur all the time. Instead of "Taking Back the Party," perhaps we should focus on "Arresting the Rapists."
When you think about it, it's easy to see why Sabrina Rubin Erdely — the Rolling Stone writer so driven to cover America's allegedly rampant campus "rape culture" that she was willing to play fast and loose with the facts — was so taken by Jackie's story. Jackie, to put it starkly, was the perfect victim. She didn't drink a lot. She wore conservative clothes. She didn't do anything sexual. She was shoved in a room. Her story was black and white. If she was telling the truth, she would be the inarguable victim of an utterly horrible crime.
It was curious, then, to see the fevered retreat of both media and activists into tired and incongruous feminist tropes in response to Jackie's story: the passionate declarations against "slut-shaming" (Seriously, how was that even applicable?); the "no-means-no" chants (Tip: Gang rapists do not care about consent); and the faculty calls for fair and equal party "turf." (Really, an English professor declared this to be crucial.)
It's almost as if modern feminists, earnestly schooled in a cloudy haze of relativism and "rape culture," don't have the words for pure evil — or, more alarmingly, they don't even understand the concept. It's also worth noting that Jackie, repeatedly labeled as too "afraid" or "weak" or "fragile" to file a complaint — an action that theoretically would have protected other women from the same fate — was never called to push for justice. Among feminists, the university, together with the broader "system," was to blame.
Even as it unravels, sympathetic journalists and activists are now arguing that Jackie's story, facts or no facts, reveals an important "truth."
If Jackie was assaulted in some way, let's hope she finds justice and a sense of peace. But with the strange eagerness of the media, academia and feminists to latch onto an over-the-top narrative that was highly questionable from the get-go, it might be fair to stop and wonder who the real purveyors of "rape culture" really are.
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. This column originally ran in RealClearPolitics.