The default position in our culture is to blame the victim – especially in cases of sexual assault. Some do it for personal preservation reasons — “If I can determine why they were assaulted/abused, I can avoid having it happen to me” — but some seem to be interested only in assigning blame: If only young women didn’t drink so much and party so much they’d be easier to believe when they got assaulted and wouldn’t they even get assaulted less?
By publishing Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s explicit exposé of rape culture on the University of Virginia’s campus and then backing away while blaming Jackie, the victim at the center of the piece, Rolling Stone gift wrapped a “rape victims lie” trope and delivered it into the waiting arms of men’s rights activists, rape apologists, and professional victim blamers. Survivors en masse feared not being believed even before a discredited but widely circulated writer (who had previously doxxed one of the American nurses who had Ebola and spread the false accusation that Michael Brown had a second-degree murder conviction on his juvenile record) spread Jackie’s full name and private information all over the internet for public consumption.
But there is no way to retract the damage that has been done to this young woman or to the countless survivors who will now agonize even more over whether to come forward. To date, Rolling Stone has yet to apologize to “Jackie” directly; the magazine’s updated “apology” to readers only partially shifts the blame to their inability to fact check — which could have protected their source as well as their publication. Spin-off think pieces link to the writer who doxxed Jackie, which only serves to amplify an environment where anyone without a perfect victimology and steel-trap memory can reasonably fear for both their reputation and their physical safety should they have the audacity to speak out about what happened to them.
I have that fear. Despite having a public platform and a degree of credibility that a private citizen doesn’t enjoy, I’m not a good victim. My story isn’t airtight or unchanging. Even now, when I talk about what happened to me during my four-year abusive relationship, my story has alternate versions. Depending on how much I can handle on any given day, I will leave out details or add them back in. Depending on what aspect of my story can be helpful to another survivor or current news, I will emphasize that part of my attacker’s behavior. Does this mean I am lying? Certainly not; it means I am a human being with a complicated psyche and lived experience.
I have softened, updated, edited, revised, reviewed, and reconfigured my rape story. The timeline is fuzzy around the edges, and if you asked me for specific details like exact date, what I was doing earlier in the day, what time the clock read, what either of us was wearing, or how much one or both of us had had to drink, well… I wouldn’t have ever stood up to cross-examination.
The truth is, no one’s life stands up to this kind of scrutiny — and most people don’t have to tell a squeaky clean, totally together tale over and over within hours of a trauma while flinching through exams, bright lights, fears of expulsion, fears that loved ones will abandon them, fears that this all can and will happen again.
Because I didn’t report, I didn’t have to endure the process of retelling my story the way survivors who come forward in the hopes of prosecuting their attackers must. Most sexual assault survivors tell their story around a dozen times the first day they report — to the responding officer; to the triage clerk at the hospital; to the nurse at the hospital; to the doctor at the hospital; to their best friend who took them to the hospital; to their partner; to the detective. Having to tell your story dozens and dozens of times to dozens and dozens of people leads to discrepancies. Of course it does; how could it not?
But it is these common, understandable discrepancies that are being used to threaten a now famous-against-her-will young woman. Trauma victims often experience memory shifts. For some of us, leaving out details is a coping mechanism. For others, there is a fear of reprisal. Still others simply don’t think what happened to them is everyone — or anyone — else’s business. I don’t often tell the story about the time my ex had me up against a wall with his hands around my neck in part because of privacy reasons. And because I think that one incident distracts from the murkier coercion he used to ensure I couldn’t say no on a regular basis. When a man who outweighs a woman by nearly 100 pounds has her feet off the floor, laughing at her as she threatens in a gasping voice to call the police, who is going to tell her she shouldn’t have felt afraid?
It is the way my ex used to manipulate me emotionally that walks a nuanced line, making my story more useful, more common, and more open to attack. He wielded my economic vulnerability like a weapon — knowing that when he came home drunk at 8 a.m. after a long bar shift to find me asleep just an hour before my alarm would begin my next 18-hour workday, who was I to say no if he wanted to? I know I couldn’t have left, but I don’t expect strangers or loved ones to see it from my perspective. The experience of listening to them talk rape and abuse has taught me I can’t be sure who will support me when they find out.
I have had to come to terms with my story gradually over the past five years. I didn’t recognize it as rape for a long time, and processing that information took work and a lot of support. That happens with many survivors — whether they are attacked once or whether they are abused over time and work through the trauma later. There is no right way to deal with being raped; there is only the way you do it.
When a respected investigative journalism outlet incites a national discussion about what a victim is supposed to do, how and when they’re supposed to report, and whether we should even bother believing them, they are actively choosing to support rape culture and silencing survivors. As our “justice” system only sees fit to punish 3% of prosecuted attackers, most victims will only ever have the court of public opinion (should they seek it out) to vindicate them. Rolling Stone has taken that away as well.