You are five years old. You have an aunt who is only nine years older — she’s your babysitter today. You wake up to a strange man raising his voice toward your aunt.
The first thing you hear is: “If you wake her up, I’ll kill her.” The first thing you see is her face, terrified.
The second thing you see is a gun. She tells you to stay asleep, or at least to pretend. He takes her to another room.
You can only pretend for so long.
Like any five-year-old, you’re curious. You hear commotion, but you don’t know exactly what’s going on out there. Slinking toward the door, you peek through the thin slit where light seeps in.
You see the man sitting in the kitchen, gun in hand. Your aunt pours him something to drink.
You pretend to sleep until sleep becomes reality.
When you wake up, the man is gone. Your aunt checks on you and gives you your favorite toy to play with. She calls the police and tells them about the break-in and what ensued after.
Still groggy from your nap, you wonder if it was all just a dream. You step into the kitchen and pause for a second. You can remember every detail about the man’s face and voice. Your Mr. Potato Head drops to the floor; its parts scatter.
Decades later, you’re still picking up the pieces.
Last November, Rolling Stone published an article entitled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” detailing a University of Virginia student’s experience with rape at a fraternity party. Sabrina Erdely, the author of the article, intended to help a young woman named Jackie tell her horrific story and bring national attention to the way colleges mishandle sexual assault cases on campus.
At first, Erdely’s article accomplished what she and Rolling Stone set out to do: acknowledge the existence of a problem. However, in less than a week’s time, “A Rape on Campus” ignited a national debate. People began questioning Erdely’s — and Rolling Stone’s — researching and reporting methods, finding inconsistencies with Jackie’s story and wondering how an article of this magnitude could be published relying “entirely on one unnamed source.”
An unintentional consequence of Rolling Stone’s article, which the publication officially retracted on April 5th, is the potentially discouraging effect it can have on victims looking to share their stories. What is there to gain from stepping forward and telling your story if some people are going to doubt your credibility?
The widespread debate surrounding the article may also dissuade journalists from reporting about sexual assault cases in the future. The challenge of researching a case like this is getting the facts from multiple sources without bringing into question the victim’s integrity. The best way to avoid offending victims and readers — and to avoid damaging your reputation as a reporter, in case of unreliable sources — is to avoid broaching the topic altogether. Right?
In “Lessons from Rolling Stone: The feminist argument for naming rape survivors in the media,” Sonali Kohli writes that journalists should not allow the Rolling Stone situation to deter them from doing their jobs. She ends her Quartz article by concluding:
“…the takeaway should be to report smarter, not to stop reporting.”
When Columbia Journalism Review’s investigative report about the Rolling Stone story came out on April 5th — coinciding with the story’s retraction — nobody was willing to take full responsibility for the debacle. The 13,000-word report calls it “a failure that was avoidable,” detailing the trail of missteps that led to the controversy without directly blaming anybody involved.
Nobody from Rolling Stone has stepped down or been fired: not the author, the editors, the fact-checkers, nor the head of the fact-checking department; perhaps punishment this severe would be unjust. Regardless, there is a lesson to be learned from the situation.
How can we “report smarter” when individuals refuse to claim ownership of their mistakes?
The idea of responsibility extends further than just the journalistic sphere. When it comes to sexual abuse and rape culture, this concept is key.
After an in-depth discussion with Maureen Richards — a witness and victim of rape and sexual abuse — I believe that everybody should take more ownership of their actions.
The fact that Rolling Stone reached out to CJR to conduct an investigation means that the publication was aware of flaws in the reporting methods for the UVA article. So, while no one individual took the blame, RS acknowledged that it was everyone’s mistake.
When each individual takes responsibility for what s/he can control, universal issues aren’t as daunting. This is why group projects are much easier when every member does his or her part.
Parents must prepare their children for the world outside of the four walls they call “home.” We must know that a reality exists and that, one day, we’re going to face it head-on. Sometimes, as depicted in this article’s introductory story, that outside world can invade those four walls and catch us off guard. What matters is how we respond to it. Do we accept the reality, or do we try to change it?
Men must combat the idea of rape culture rather than perpetuate it. They must not feel entitled to sex under any circumstances. Of course, not all men are rapists; in fact, most men aren’t. But most rapists are men, and men are a part of rape culture whether they like it or not. In “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Rape Culture,” Zaron Burnett III explains it perfectly:
“The completely reasonable and understandable fear of men is your responsibility. You didn’t create it. But you also didn’t build the freeways either. Some of the things you inherit from society are cool and some of them are rape culture.”
Women must be brave and honest about their experiences. For women to combat rape culture, it will help to have them tell their stories. They must accept and understand the magnitude of rape accusations, and they must be genuine with themselves.
When it comes to sexual encounters that involve drugs and/or alcohol, a gray area exists.
What if one individual is drunk? What if both parties are intoxicated? What if someone is blackout drunk and then gains consciousness during sex? Should the sex stop? What if s/he doesn’t say “no” out loud but doesn’t want to have sex? What if s/he does nothing to try to stop the act from happening?
What if somebody wants sex in the moment but regrets it afterward?
Clearly defining the line between what is rape and what isn’t rape is nearly impossible, especially when people view half-measures — such as California’s “Yes Means Yes” bill — as progress. This is by no means a black and white issue, but there has to be a more effective solution than something that can boil down to he said/she said.
How do we eliminate the idea of sexual entitlement and promote the ideas of respect and responsibility?
In our culture, we’ve normalized sex. More specifically, we’ve normalized casual sex — sometimes to the point where sexual independence is equated to power. The problem that many of us run into is mistaking this freedom to do what we want with our bodies for actual power.
Some fall into the trap of confusing promiscuity with independence, believing that it earns us some type of status or swagger. Society has helped glorify this concept. But in reality, all this promiscuous behavior earns most of us is a label like slut or whore.
Sometimes, we make poor decisions. We must own those decisions and take responsibility for whatever we can control. It is much easier to point fingers than come to terms with a regrettable choice we’ve made. Nobody wants to be wrong.
In its report about the UVA article, the Columbia Journalism Review states:
“Journalistic practice — and basic fairness — require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.”
Everyone can be more careful. More respectful. More mature. More responsible.
By worrying about what we can control — and keeping ourselves within our limits when there is alcohol involved — we can minimize these gray areas. By creating boundaries with sexual partners, we can minimize these gray areas. By teaching people how not to rape rather than how not to get raped, we can minimize these gray areas.
Active solutions are better than passive ones.
We’ve all been through our own difficult experiences, and the one thing we have in common is that we’ve survived. If you’re reading this right now, you’ve lived through something tragic. Or extraordinary.
As I learned from my conversation with Maureen, “We are all survivors of something.” Over the next few weeks, we will discover what we’ve survived and determine how we will continue to survive it.
Click below to read Part II.
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