Student leaders respond to Rolling Stone inaccuracies, push for broader advocacy

Advocates insist focus must remain on developing strong policy, culture changes to combat sexual assault

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Several student leaders and advocates held a press conference last month to discuss the ongoing advocacy efforts at the University to combat sexual assault.

Rebecca Lim | Cavalier Daily

Student leaders responded to a statement issued Friday by Rolling Stone magazine, in which managing editor Will Dana apologized to readers for "discrepancies" in an article published last month detailing the alleged gang rape in Sept. 2012 of a then-first year student Jackie by at least one member of the University chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Phi Kappa Psi has listed at least three specific details from its internal investigation which refute Jackie’s account. The fraternity’s statement, along with Dana's comment that the magazine’s trust in her was “misplaced,” have raised questions about the incident as a whole.

Third-year College student Sara Surface, chair of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, said the experience of a sexual assault is often so traumatizing that victims have trouble remembering details.

“Trauma does a lot of things to the brain and to memory,” she said. “It is not uncommon for details to not 100 percent match up with what people believe to be a reasonable story. The thing is, most people don’t have to [be] hounded by reporters about that.”

This lack of recollection does not mean their stories are entirely false, she said.

“Are we going to say then, because you can’t confirm 100 percent all of these details because of emotional duress, [that] you were lying that you were ever attacked?” she said.

The article, “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, provided a detailed account of a gang rape that took place in the Phi Kappa Psi house. It recounts Jackie's narrative of being invited to a date function by a third-year student, "Drew" — identified as a Phi Kappa Psi brother who worked as a lifeguard with Jackie. Phi Kappa Psi's statement Friday says there were no fraternity brothers employed at the Aquatic and Fitness Center during the fall 2012 semester and no date function or other social event took place at the house on the night in question — Sept. 28, 2012.

Surface, a third-year College student, said doubts about details in the story do not change the overall significance of the crime that has been reported or the need for awareness about gender-based violence on Grounds and in the Greek system.

“We’re not sure it's Phi Psi — it still easily could have been in a fraternity house," she said. "I’m not trying to villainize [fraternities], but we need to examine the structures of our system and look to improve them. I would hope we’d be doing that anyway, and the article has only increased those efforts.”

Brian Head, a fourth-year Commerce student and president of One in Four — a student sexual assault prevention advocacy group — echoed this sentiment, pointing to the severe effects of trauma on memories of sexual and non-sexual traumas.

“The inaccuracies of a Rolling Stone article that had a caricature depiction of our school doesn’t change the fact that we need to believe our friends if they come to you and say they’ve been sexually assaulted," he said. "People were horrified by the reported reaction of Jackie’s friends in that article.”

By Rolling Stone’s account, when Jackie recounted her experience to friends, they did not encourage her to seek help from the police, and told her that her social reputation might suffer if she did decide to report the rape.

However, the Washington Post reported that Jackie’s friend “Andy” finds fault in the way Jackie’s story was recounted in the original article.

“‘Andy’ said Jackie said she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of men, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house," the Post reports. "He said he did not notice any injuries or blood but said the group offered to get her help. She, instead, wanted to return to her dorm, and he and the friends spent the night with her to comfort her at her request.”

Andy's identity has not been disclosed.

One in Four released a statement Friday night imploring students to remain focused on survivor support and bystander intervention, even as Jackie's narrative is called into question.

“We remain unwavering in our feelings regarding this issue: no matter what is brought to light, we as a community have experienced the strongest emotion, the greatest desire for change, and the farthest step forward in the history of our University towards ending sexual assault,” the statement said.

Student Council President Jalen Ross, a fourth-year Engineering student, said the important dialogue surrounding this article has never been based on the specific details of the case.

“The details of the story could turn out to be any number of things," he said. "That doesn’t change the problem that we’re trying to fix.”

Ross said possible inaccuracies in the article are an example of the danger that comes in pinning the issue of sexual assault exclusively on fraternities.

“We need to be exceptionally careful about pinning this problem on any one group of people. I’ve always been concerned about the vitriol that was aimed at fraternities in this problem,” he said. “That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is committed to and educated about this issue to say that fraternities don’t have work to do.”

The Inter-Fraternity Council released a brief statement Friday asking students to remain focused on the larger picture of sexual assault, instead of focusing on the alleged inaccuracies in Jackie's story.

“The IFC would like to emphasize that the facts of this specific article do not change the broader reality we face as a University,” the statement reads. "We ask that our community does not become mired in details of one specific incident, but rather that we continue relentlessly pursuing institutionalized survivor support, the promotion of bystander awareness, and a safe and healthy environment for all U.Va. students."

Head emphasized that the conversation about sexual assault prevention has been an ongoing effort since the beginning of the school year.

“You’ve seen a marked increase in attention [to] this issue over the whole semester, even before this article came out, and we must address it with as much rigor as we did before [the Rolling Stone retraction]," he said. "I don’t see why this has to slow down policy change, education, and advocacy at the University.”

Whatever the facts are determined to be in this case, Surface said, survivor support organizations like One Less are not investigative bodies, nor is it appropriate for them to be.

“As an advocate its not my job to be an investigator, and its my job to support survivors, and I will contribute to support their voices and any processes of recovery,” she said.

Ross echoed this sentiment, saying the story has given the University the energy it needed to address sexual violence head-on.

“It has never been about the details of this story. It has been about every story, and every survivor,” Ross said. “From top to bottom, we are still committed to solving this problem. This is about so many more of our classmates than just Jackie.”

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