NEW YORK (AP) - The furor over a retracted Rolling Stone article may deter some rape victims from coming forward, but the national campaign to curb sexual assaults on college campuses will keep gaining strength, according to advocates who have been following the high-profile case.
The November 2014 article, purporting to describe a vicious gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, was retracted by Rolling Stone on Sunday after the Columbia Journalism School issued a scathing critique of how the story was reported and edited. The critical report followed an announcement by police officials last month that investigators had found no evidence to back the claims of the alleged victim.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault, in interviews Monday, had mixed views on the legacy of the Rolling Stone article.
“I’m afraid this will perpetuate the myth that sexual assault on campus is this made-up phenomenon,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security On Campus. “It puts a lot more on the plate of those who are working to combat it.”
Kiss described on-campus sexual assault as an epidemic that needs to be addressed aggressively. The rate of false reports, she said, is between 2 percent and 10 percent.
At the University of California-Los Angeles, anti-violence activist Savannah Badalich also worried that the Rolling Stone retraction might dissuade some assault victims from coming forward. Badalich, a senior who is UCLA’s student wellness commissioner, has written about being sexually assaulted during her sophomore year and deciding not to report the incident. She subsequently founded a group called 7,000 in Solidarity that campaigns against sexual violence on campus.
Rolling Stone, she said, did a disservice to the woman featured in its article by not fact-checking her account more rigorously.
“Survivors often jumble their stories - they remember bits and pieces,” she said. “Now this becomes this evidence for people who are trying to oppose violence-prevention efforts on campus. They say, ‘Hey, this is an example of someone lying about their case just to get reported.’”
However, Badalich said there could be a positive legacy to the case if journalists improve the overall coverage of sexual assault.
“If we take this as a teachable moment on how to report on incidents of violence like this, it could be positive,” she said.
Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington, D.C., said he was hopeful that the case would have only a limited deterrent effect on victims.
“This was such an unusual case in every respect,” he said. “I think most victims would see that it’s easily distinguishable from their own cases.”
Berkowitz noted that the University of Virginia and the local police department responded vigorously when the allegations surfaced last year.
“There was a tremendous amount of attention and effort put into investigating them and taking them seriously,” he said. “Hopefully that would be comforting to victims.”
Nationally, Berkowitz predicts that efforts to curb on-campus sexual assault will gain further momentum, with active engagement by the White House, the NCAA and many other parties.
“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of effort from college administrators in the past year,” he said. “I wish everything about this Rolling Stone case had never happened, but the country is going to continue to pay more attention to sexual violence on campus.”
At the University of Virginia, a group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and board members has formed to explore how to improve the safety and well-being of sexual assault survivors and other students. The effort is focusing on prevention, institutional response and campus culture, holding town meetings and preparing recommendations for changes.
Some students have called for disciplinary action against the purported victim in the Rolling Stone article, identified only as Jackie. Her lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, told The Associated Press on Monday that “we are not making any comment at all at this time.”
At the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations center, co-director Jane Stapleton and her colleagues have been working to develop and evaluate programs to help end violence against women.
As soon as she read the Rolling Stone article, Stapleton became concerned about its sensational aspects.
“It seemed to me so splashy and flashy - it set the bar so high for what campus sexual assault looks like,” Stapleton said. “I worried that some survivors might have thought, “My assault wasn’t so bad. Somehow I am less of a victim.’”
“Then, with the retraction, you have some people saying, ‘Well, she was lying. She had ulterior motives,’” Stapleton added. “The effect on some survivors would be, ‘Well, I’m never going to tell my story because nobody’s going to believe me.’”
However, Stapleton expressed long-term optimism.
“There’s more and more attention to sexual assaults on campus, and what campuses need to do to prevent them,” she said. “It’s not inevitable. We can stop it.”
Lisa Maatz, the top policy adviser for the American Association of University Women, said it likely would be a boon for advocates to be able to move past the Rolling Stone case.
“We’ve seen that it’s only a very sensational, scandalous story that gets the attention,” she said. “Truthfully, the daily amount of sexual assault on campus is scandalous enough. We don’t need to sensationalize it to report the story.”
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