Does the cause of combating rape on college campuses require a willful blindness to false allegations?
That's the question raised by some reactions to last week's police report on the inquiry into shocking -- and discredited -- claims of a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia. Despite strong evidence of fabrication by the alleged victim, a student identified as "Jackie," victim advocates and many journalists have balked at calling this a hoax. In a particularly startling comment, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat leading the charge against campus sexual assault, has referred to criticism of Jackie as "victim-blaming."
In November, the horrific tale of Jackie's alleged rape by seven men at a fraternity party -- and of callous indifference from students and school officials to whom she spoke about her assault -- was at the center of an article in Rolling Stone magazine about "rape culture" at UVA. The article caused a national outcry. But less than a month later, it crumbled under scrutiny from The Washington Post and other media.
The party where Jackie was supposedly attacked had never happened. The friends who saw her that night disputed her account. And the man who had supposedly asked Jackie on a date and set her up for the gang rape was almost certainly fictional. Evidence suggested that Jackie faked emails and text messages from a suitor named "Haven Monahan" to impress a male friend in whom she was romantically interested -- and whom she called for help after the alleged assault.
Not surprisingly, the Charlottesville police inquiry concluded that there was no evidence to support Jackie's story -- and plenty of evidence contradicting it. The inquiry also debunks her claim that in the spring of 2014, she was physically assaulted near the campus in retaliation for her anti-rape activism.
Appearing on WCNY radio's "Capitol Pressroom" show on March 24, Gillibrand correctly noted that the collapse of this case should not undermine efforts to ensure student safety on campus. But she also deplored the negative attitudes expressed toward Jackie, saying that "victim-blaming or shining the spotlight on her for coming forward is not the right approach." (Who is the "victim" here, other than the fraternity smeared as a haven for rapists?)
She also warned that calling for sanctions against the young woman was "inappropriate" and would send the wrong message: "One of the challenges with survivors of sexual trauma and rape is that they often don't want to actually participate with law enforcement because they don't think justice is possible. They don't think they will be believed; they think they'll be blamed."
Later, Gillibrand admitted some rape charges are false and that it's important to protect the accused. But how can such protections be effective if refusing to believe a self-proclaimed survivor is depicted as an injustice and if blaming a proven serial liar is inappropriate?
Granted, Gillibrand's remarks partly reflect the failure of both the media and the Charlottesville police to call the story a fabrication rather than an unresolved case plagued by discrepancies. The police chief has stressed that the report, which is devastating to Jackie's claims, does not prove that she wasn't attacked; many media accounts have made no mention of the fake "Haven Monahan" messages. This reluctance to call Jackie's story a false allegation is rooted in political correctness, not fact.
Yet, as a national politician in the forefront of initiatives on this issue, Gillibrand has a special responsibility to get the facts straight. Otherwise, the message to victims of false accusations is that justice is not possible.