Rolling Stone has just issued a partial retraction to Sabrina Rubin Erdely's story last month on the brutal gang rape of a University of Virginia student, Jackie, at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party. The story described how on September 28, 2012, Jackie was allegedly violently raped by seven male students for three hours in a fraternity bedroom, and how two years on, the perpetrators had yet to face any consequences.
A Rape On Campus sparked worldwide outrage and discussion of colleges' egregious handling of sexual assault, but now, Rolling Stone has distanced itself from the story with a statement, released earlier today, that calls into question the trustworthiness of Jackie and the veracity of her claims. "In the face of new information," the statement reads, "there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account."
Rolling Stone released this statement just before UVA's Phi Kappa Psi released its own, which states that "the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi has been working tirelessly and openly with the Charlottesville Police Department as they investigate the allegations detailed in the November 19, 2014 Rolling Stone article." The fraternity's statement goes on to list three factual errors made in the article, stating that no member of the fraternity worked at UVA's Aquatic and Fitness Center in 2012, that the Chapter did not host a social event on the weekend that Jackie reports she was raped, and that the Chapter's pledging periods take place in spring — not in the fall, as Rolling Stone reported.
Of course, errors in a victim's account of her sexual assault are no reason to disbelieve that she was assaulted. One estimate puts the percentage of false allegations of sexual assault at 8-10% of all reported cases. Poking holes in victims' accounts of sexual assault has long been used as a tactic to discredit them — to undermine and to silence their voices. But, human memory is faulty, and recall of traumatic experiences is no exception.
What is clear is that Rolling Stone failed to fact-check this story to the extent that it could and should have. Now, it insists that at time of reporting, it had no reason to dig deeper into the very serious story. "In the months Erdely spent reporting the story," the magazine's statement reads, "Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility." The most damaging consequence of this new development is the doubt that this single, highly publicized, and potentially false story of sexual assault will cast over thousands of victims' narratives.