Rolling Stone UVA Article Mistakes Highlight Challenges of Sexual Assault Investigations

Published: December 8, 2014

On Friday, Rolling Stone published an apology regarding an article it ran last month, titled A Rape on Campus. The November article described how a first-year University of Virginia (UVA) student was sexually assaulted by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi party. It also criticized the school’s response after the victim reported the crime. The article prompted UVA to suspend all Greek life until the end of the semester, as well as conduct a full review of the school’s sexual violence policies and culture.

In Friday’s apology, however, the Rolling Stone admitted that the original article and the victim’s story had discrepancies, such as conflicting dates and conflicting facts.

The Rolling Stone case shows just how difficult it is to investigate sexual assaults. Trauma victims often change their stories or can’t remember the exact details of their assault. They do so as a result of trauma, not because they want attention or are trying to lie.

Although I have never been a victim of rape, I know a little bit about the effects of trauma. When I was in college, I was verbally threatened by a co-worker. To this day, I still can’t recall exactly what he said to me because I was so traumatized by his threats. I have a fuzzy recollection that he threatened to kill me, but I can’t be sure. I do know the threats were serious enough that another co-worker who overheard the threats reported him to my supervisor. (My supervisor, by the way, did nothing to protect me and tried to get me fired, but that’s another story. To read about it, click here.)

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I tell you about my experience with trauma because mine, although minimal compared to that of a sexual assault victim, was enough to make me forget some really important details of what happened to me. I can only imagine the trauma and confusion that a victim of a rape would experience.

My point is that the alleged victim in Rolling Stone’s original story might very well still be a victim.  Just because her facts aren’t straight doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped or sexually assaulted in some other way. The discrepancies in her version of the story could be the result of trauma, especially if she were incapacitated by drugs and/or alcohol.

Whether or not the victim was actually assaulted, the Rolling Stone apology demonstrates just how hard it is to get accurate information on sexual assaults. These cases are tough, murky and confusing. It also shows why campus police and administrators struggle in handling these matters.

On the one hand, schools must appropriately address the needs of sexual assault victims. On the other, they must give a fair hearing to the accused. Doing so correctly is extremely challenging and sometimes impossible.

Up until now, the media hasn’t fully grasped the nuances or difficulties associated with conducting sexual assault investigations. Hopefully, what happened with the Rolling Stone will prompt them to better understand and give campus administrators and college public safety officials the benefit of the doubt in these matters. At the very least, it should encourage the media to do a better job of investigating before making damaging accusations.

Photo by Terren

Posted in: Insights

Tagged with: Investigations

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