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Truth takes a hit in campus rape debate

Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity

Students walk past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jay Paul

The recent Rolling Stone account of a brutal and unpunished fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia shocked the nation and galvanized the effort to combat sexual violence on college campuses.

Less than three weeks later, the story has crumbled after critical questions spurred a Washington Post investigation that rebutted some of its key claims and severely damaged the credibility of the alleged victim, Jackie -- eliciting an apology from the magazine. This fiasco has dismayed many feminists, who are concerned that it will damage the movement against campus rape. But maybe it will restore some much-needed sanity on the subject and cool off the dangerous zealotry.

That women who report rape should be taken at their word is akin to dogma in radical feminist circles. This idea no doubt contributed to the credulity with which both Rolling Stone's editors and, at first, nearly everyone else treated the horrific tale -- despite numerous red flags. Jackie was supposedly ambushed in a dark bedroom at a fraternity party and violently raped by seven men for three hours in an apparent initiation ritual -- while lying on broken glass from a coffee-table shattered in the struggle. After escaping, she said she called three friends for help -- but even though she was bloodied and battered, they discouraged her from going to the police or the hospital, fearing the social price for bringing a rape charge against a popular fraternity.

The claim that the young woman managed to get by without medical attention after being so brutalized was just one of many improbable details in the story. A close reading makes it clear that, besides not contacting the accused perpetrators, author Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not interview any of the people who saw Jackie right after the alleged rape. Those people told the Post that they never saw any injuries on Jackie (who said she was not only cut with glass but punched in the face) and that she initially said she'd been forced to have oral sex with several men. Was that the truth? We may never know now.

Feminist commentators such as Salon's Katie McDonough responded to criticism of the story with vehement hostility, accusing skeptics of "rape denial" and misogyny. Even now, some continue to find tortured reasons to insist Jackie may be telling the truth. Others such as University of Virginia student journalist Julia Horowitz openly say that "fact-checking" doesn't matter, since the larger narrative of widespread campus rape is true.

No one denies that sexual assault on campus happens -- though estimates of its prevalence vary widely, from some studies' claim of 1 in 5 women victimized while in college to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures suggesting it's closer to 1 in 40. But false reports happen as well, and here, too, reliable data are hard to come by. To say that some women lie about rape for a variety of reasons (including mental illness) is not misogynist, any more than to say that some men rape is anti-male.

Far too often, the movement against campus sexual assault has relied on sensational claims that received too little critical examination, and has promoted policies based on the myth that accusers virtually never lie. The flaws of the resulting system of campus hearings and penalties -- including a stacked deck against accused men -- are documented in a new magazine-length piece by Emily Yoffe in Slate. But as the Rolling Stone fiasco shows, lack of healthy scrutiny of rape complaints hurts women, too: It allows hoaxes to flourish, backfiring on both victims and victim advocates when finally exposed. The truth should never become politically incorrect.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

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