March 31, 2015

ASHE SCHOW: Why the Rolling Stone gang-rape story will never be labeled a hoax.

By now it’s clear that the brutal gang rape reported last November in Rolling Stone did not occur. I write that, knowing full well the backlash I could receive from not adding the caveat that something could still have happened to Jackie, the accuser in the story.

Activists have clung to the idea that something probably did happen to make a young woman tell a tale of a brutal gang rape and become a campus activist to keep the hoax claims isolated to a small subset. These same activists bent over backwards following the Charlottesville Police press conference last week to claim that Jackie probably wasn’t lying, because such a false accusation “flies in the face of statistics,” as one CNN panelist said. Of course, the statistic that only 2 percent of reported rapes are false – doubtful anyway – only applies to rapes actually reported to police, which this one was not.

But in any event, the faint possibility that Jackie may have suffered some other horrific event is not the reason this story will not be labeled a hoax by activists or most in the mainstream media.

No, the reason it will not be labeled a hoax comes from an anonymous McGill University student, using the pseudonym Aurora Dagny, who wrote last year that dogmatism is in part to blame for activists’ refusal to accept evidence contrary to their worldview.

“One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs,” Dagny wrote. “If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity.”

Because the activists behind the Rolling Stone story hold a “sacred belief” that thousands, perhaps even millions, of college students are sexually assaulted each year, any evidence to the contrary is seen as detrimental to the cause.

It’s why Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was able to continue calling Jackie a “victim” of a crime for which there is no proof. It’s why the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, and those responsible for vandalizing the fraternity named in the Rolling Stone article have not had to apologize for their rush to judgment.

This is too kind. Jackie, Gillibrand and Sullivan won’t apologize because they’re political liars, and they’re lying to a constituency that doesn’t care about the truth, and the press — which is part of that constituency to a large degree — won’t punish them for it.

Related: Cathy Young: Jackie Is A Serial Liar. Why Not Say it?

It is, of course, nearly impossible to prove a negative. Short of a surveillance tape documenting Jackie’s every movement, one cannot know for certain that she was never sexually assaulted at UVA. But the evidence against her is damning. It’s not simply that there was no party at Phi Kappa Si, the fraternity named by Jackie, anywhere near the time when she said she was attacked. It’s not simply that her account changed from forced oral sex to vaginal rape and from five assailants to seven, or that her friends saw no sign of her injuries after the alleged assault. What clinches the case is the overwhelming proof that “Drew,” Jackie’s date who supposedly orchestrated her rape, was Jackie’s own invention.

Back in the fall of 2012, Jackie’s friends knew “Drew” as “Haven Monahan,” an upperclassman who supposedly wanted to date her and with whom she encouraged them to exchange emails and text messages. However, an investigation by The Washington Post and other media last December found that “Haven’s” messages were fake; the phone numbers he used were registered to online services that allow texting via the Internet and redirecting calls, while his photo matches a former high school classmate of Jackie’s who lives in a different state. No “Haven Monahan” exists on the UVA campus or, apparently, anywhere in the United States (at least outside romance novels). The catfishing scheme seems to have been a ploy to get the attention of a male friend on whom Jackie had a crush—the same friend she called for help after the alleged assault.

Is it possible that someone sexually assaulted Jackie on the night when she claimed to be going out with her fictional suitor? Theoretically, yes. But it’s also clear that her credibility is as non-existent as “Haven Monahan.”

Moreover, the police investigation has debunked another one of Jackie’s claims: that in spring 2014, when she was already an anti-rape activist, some men harassed her in the street off-campus and threw a bottle that hit her face and (improbably) broke. Jackie said that her roommate picked glass out of a cut on her face; but the roommate disputes this and describes the injury as a scrape, likely from a fall. Jackie also said she called her mother immediately after that attack, but phone records show no such call.

Despite all this, Chief Longo wouldn’t call Jackie’s story a false allegation and even referred to her as “this survivor” (though amending it to the more neutral “or this complaining party”).

Meanwhile, in the CNN report on the March 23 press conference, anchor Brooke Baldwin, correspondent Sara Ganim and legal analyst Sunny Hostin were tripping over each other to assert that “we have to be very careful” not to brand Jackie a liar and that “she could have been sexually assaulted.” Hostin argued that the idea that Jackie made it all up “flies in the face of statistics,” because “only about 2 percent of rapes that are reported are false.”

This is a bogus statistic, which Hostin misattributed to the FBI. (According to FBI data, 8 to 9 percent of police reports of sexual assault are dismissed as “unfounded”; the reality of false rape reports is far more complicated, and it’s almost impossible to get a reliable estimate.) Even if it were true, it would say nothing about Jackie’s specific case. What’s more, statistics on false allegations generally refer to police reports or at least formal administrative complaints at a college—neither of which Jackie was willing to file.

CNN never mentioned the evidence that Jackie fabricated “Haven Monahan.” Neither did the New York Times, which said only that “the police were unable to track Mr. Monahan down.”

Jackie’s defenders argue that rape victims often change their stories because their recall is affected by trauma. It is true that memory, not just of traumatic events, can be unreliable; a victim may at various points give somewhat different descriptions of the offender or the attack. It is also true that, as writer Jessica Valenti argues, someone who tells the truth about being raped may lie to cover up embarrassing details (such as going to the rapist’s apartment to buy drugs).

None of that, however, requires us to suspend rational judgment and pretend that Jackie’s story is anything other than a fabrication. While Jackie is probably more troubled than malevolent, she is not the victim here. If there’s a victim, it’s Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity branded a nest of rapists, suspended and targeted for vandalism—as well as UVA Dean Nicole Eramo, whom the Rolling Stone story painted as a callous bureaucrat indifferent to Jackie’s plight.

Jackie lied, Erdely lied, Rolling Stone lied, Teresa Sullivan — at best — went along with a lie. All should face more consequences than they have so far experienced.

Plus: “For the rest of us, this episode shows how extreme and irrational ‘rape culture’ dogma has become, and how urgent it is to break its hold on public discourse. The current moral panic may be an overreaction to real problems of failure to support victims of sexual violence. But when truth becomes heresy, the pendulum has swung too far, with disastrous consequences for civil rights and basic justice.”

UPDATE: Ann Althouse says I should be calling for “more speech,” not “consequences.” The very first commenter on her post busts her on this, correctly:

The proper remedy for perjury is not “more speech”.

The proper remedy for filing a false police report is not “more speech”.

The proper remedy for slander is not “more speech”.

The proper remedy for all of the above are “consequences”.

Yes, “more speech” is a remedy for opinions one doesn’t like. When speech falls into the category of actions — which false accusations certainly do — it calls for more than simple talk as a response. (But note that Jackie was smart enough not to file a police report, though that should have been a tip-off). And I should note that the fraternity in question was the victim of violent mob action that was ginned up in part by the University of Virginia itself. Is the only remedy for officially-inspired thuggery “more speech?” No. That’s one remedy, but it’s not the only remedy, nor should it be.

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