What Rolling Stone taught us about rape culture

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The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Steve Helber | AP)

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Steve Helber | AP)

On Nov. 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article headlined, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” detailing the story of a young woman’s alleged gang rape by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

One month later, after both a police and school investigation deemed the story to be flawed and potentially untrue, Will Dana, the managing editor at Rolling Stone, released a statement on behalf of the magazine admitting to the journalistic errors that went into writing such an article.

Fast forward another few months, and there are talks of legal retaliation for the fraternity, as seen through articles published such as The Christian Science Monitor’s “Should UVA Frat Sue Rolling Stone for Debunked Rape Story?”

On Monday, Columbia University officials will hold a press conference regarding the university’s investigation into the misreporting of the Rolling Stone article, after the investigation’s release yesterday night.

Whenever such a controversial issue surfaces, it becomes easy for readers to become so entrenched in the information and perspectives of supposed victims, alleged perpetrators, journalists, etc., that the bigger picture becomes obscured. It is important to take a step back after the smoke has settled and observe what we know and what it means in a greater context.

In the case of the UVA rape scandal, this greater argument is one speaking to the existence of a rape culture in this nation. As the issue of on campus rape becomes more pressing, national debate arguing the legitimacy of an existent rape culture ensues.

This is where the water becomes especially murky. Those arguing against the legitimacy of rape culture use the UVA scandal to bolster their perspective, suggesting that many rape accusations are unwarranted, while those arguing for its legitimacy claim the UVA case to be either an outlier or misinterpreted. If one is to be objective while observing this controversy, they cannot allow for the Rolling Stone’s sorry journalism to skew their stance.

Though sexual assaults are not typically deemed black and white, this case is particularly intricate. So many factors are present within its entirety that it is seemingly impossible to generate any concrete argument regarding rape culture using this instance. On the other hand, other spectrums allow for a more holistic review and analysis of said issue.

Anne Hendershott’s “The Politics of Deviance,” explains that though on campus rape has declined over the last four decades, sexual assault on campus has been deemed a national epidemic by American policymakers. Although arguments such as this are present, other scholars suggest the nature and culture of fraternities create an environment on campus in which women are more likely to get raped.

Yet, despite all of the debate that exists surrounding rape culture and sexual assault, a universally accepted definition of either seem nonexistent. This presents and identifies the largest hurdle for both policymakers and scholars to deal with when observing and analyzing this issue: there is a total lack of clarity.

The legitimacy of Jackie’s story remains a mystery. This does not mean that there is nothing to learn from this incident. Jackie’s story, whether true or fictitious, teaches an important lesson.

Despite the fact that Jackie’s assault would be labeled by most people as rape, far too many instances of alleged sexual assaults are not so unanimously condemned. Far too many incidents remain in a gray area that is the direct product of the obscurity of the terms surrounding the issue of rape culture.

Though it would be a fool’s errand to try to persuade an entire nation to have the same definition of such controversial issues, it is important to bring attention to the fact that there is a stifling lack of clarity here.

By doing so, we can move forward in defining a more unified idea of these issues and through this, pass policies that can slowly but surely alleviate and solve the issues of sexual assault that mar this nation’s wellbeing.