Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely’s sensational tale of a gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house has been unraveling practically since the day it was published. From the beginning, the article’s parade of sociopathetic characters – both the alleged perpetrators and the friends of Jackie, the pseudonymous accuser – were hard for many to believe. Other claims, such as the idea that Jackie was rolled around on broken glass for three hours without sustaining serious injuries requiring hospitalization, were simply nonsensical. It took only minimal scrutiny and the kind of basic fact-checking that should have preceded publication to poke major holes in the story, eventually forcing Rolling Stone to repeatedly backtrack and apologize.
Perhaps the final blow to the sordid tale came in the form of a Washington Post story featuring interviews with Jackie’s friends, who despite never being contacted by Erdely were portrayed as more concerned with their social status and popularity than getting Jackie help or justice. Not only do they refute that account, but they also claim that Jackie identified her alleged attacker to them, only to have it turn out that no such person attended the university or met the description provided.
Even more interesting than how Erdely botched the facts is why it happened.
Simply put, Jackie’s tale was too good to verify. It fit neatly the “rape culture” narrative that contends not only that the nation is suffering an epidemic of sexual assaults, but that the public is grossly indifferent to the plight of female victims, particularly on college campuses.
The rape culture narrative has become so ubiquitous that it has reached the level of a moral panic, with ideologues seeing signs of its influence everywhere. And like the moral panics that have come before, it is becoming a major threat to individual liberty.
Moral panics come in many shapes and sizes, but often begin with concern over legitimate issues. The current sexual assault panic is of this type, as was the satanic ritual child abuse panic of the 1980s. Sometimes moral panics result only in pointless rules that do little harm, like the age appropriate ratings that emerged after the panic over violence in video games. But sometimes they can have more sinister repercussions.
Back when the public consensus was that every adult wanted nothing more than to molest any child within reach, prosecutors responded predictably by charging anyone that came in contact with children with imagined crimes. Only later after the panic subsided was it determined that children often lied, were coerced by adults with agendas, or were simply too impressionable to tell the difference between reality and the fever dreams of panicked caretakers, resulting in a wave of false convictions.
These are factors that a sober, mature approach would have considered from the outset. The need to prevent crime, or find justice for victims after the fact, ought to be balanced against the right of the accused and the preservation of due process. But in the midst of a moral panic and the mob mentality it evinces, nothing matters except eradicating the great evil.
The inability to balance competing interests is a telltale sign that a moral panic is under way. Current demands from prominent feminists to always believe the victim, reiterated by a number of commentators even in the wake of Rolling Stone‘s debunked reporting, fit this description. No woman should have her story of abuse questioned, the current narrative goes, because to do so is to traumatize her again.
So pervasive is the rape culture narrative that the UVA President, after having initially responded to the Rolling Stone story by immediately suspending all Greek organizations, has so far refused to undo the order despite the new facts that have led to the story’s retraction. Supposedly, we are now told, the punishment for being an organization to which belonged the alleged perpetrators of a debunked crime will be lifted in January. Apparently that is the requisite amount of time that one must bow at the alter of rape culture and beg repentance before being allowed to return to the sordid existence of being a male on campus.
None of this is to say that nothing untoward happened to Jackie (though we may simply never know), nor that rape is not a serious crime. But exaggerating the severity of the problem has real world consequences far beyond ideologically driven journalistic malpractice.
A popular myth is that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college. By any measure that’s an astonishing figure. Even President Obama has cited it. It’s also total bunk.
A new survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that between 1995 and 2013 there was an average of 6.1 sexual assaults per 1,000 female students each year, or 2.44 percent over a standard four-year period. That means the 1 in 5 figure is exaggerated almost 10 times over. Another interesting finding, contra the moral panic, is that the rate of sexual assault for women has been declining since 1997.
So where did the 1 in 5 figure come from? It’s based on a 2007 campus sexual assault study by the National Institute of Justice that has been repeatedly criticized as plagued by obvious methodological problems. For one, the study consisted of students from just two universities and had a low response rate, making it a very small and likely unrepresentative sample to base such sweeping claims upon. It also used highly misleading questions open to subjective interpretation, and so broadly defined sexual assault that “attempted forced kissing” met the criteria, meaning the survey equally counted violent gang rape alongside the fairly standard but awkward misreading of signals that might led one person to try to kiss another when they don’t want it.
The recent BJS study, on the other hand, surveyed a much larger population with more straight forward questions and more reasonable definitions. But don’t expect the 1 in 5 figure to go away any time soon.
The BJS study also found that college women are less likely to be assaulted than non-students of a similar age, yet the moral panic is especially focused on universities. Why might that be? One possibility is that college men are a particularly easy demographic to scapegoat given the excessive party atmosphere. Another is that it provides an opportunity to skirt due process protections and codify the feminist ideal to “believe victims en masse,” as desired by Jessica Valenti, a vocal proponent of the rape culture narrative.
Responding to the cries of rape culture and the ongoing college sexual assault panic, the federal government through use of Title IX has pressured public universities to dramatically reduce the burden of proof for sexual assault accusations and erode due process rights for accused individuals.
Last month, the Department of Education ended an investigation into the sexual harassment and assault policies of Princeton University, one of the last holdouts to lowering the standard of proof required before punishing students accused of sexual misconduct. The government forced Princeton to adopt “a preponderance of the evidence standard,” which in layman’s terms means there need only be a 50.1 percent belief that the accuser is telling the truth before punishing the accused, instead of their more traditional requirement that there be “clear and convincing” evidence of guilt before conviction. Shockingly, the government even faulted the university for allowing accused students, but not accusers, to appeal decisions. The right for defendants to appeal is a strong American legal tradition that ensures every opportunity for the innocent to clear their names, while also protecting against the need to repeatedly defend oneself against the same accusation.
We are already witnessing the disturbing consequences of this frenzied push to institute a presumption of guilt. Not only have colleges adopted unfair systems resulting in numerous lawsuits over wrongful punishments, but officials in several states are now pushing misguided “affirmative consent” standards that would make it all but necessary to consult a lawyer before initiating any sexual encounter.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. One class of individuals is making out quite well in the midst of the panic, as a number of universities have created high paying positions as landing spots for former Department of Education officials to serve as “Title IX Coordinators.” Nevertheless, the longer the sexual assault panic lasts, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces and undo the damage once sanity returns.
Brian Garst is a political scientist, commentator, and advocate for free markets and individual liberty. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.