However, recent research shows that the broad contours of the environment described at UVA—where women report widespread sexual assault with no consequences for perpetrators—is not unique on America’s college campuses. As one expert told RS contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “the depressing reality is that UVA’s situation is likely the norm.”
Except for the fact that we now know the “UVA situation” was a lie. And if you’re worth your weight as a scientist or statistician, your “norm” can’t be based on a lie. Therefore, neither can your “depressing reality” no matter how “broad contours” you stroke into the picture you are painting. (“Pretty little contours,” Bob Ross instructs.) And when it comes to the 1 in 5 undergraduate women are sexually abused stat, you’re talking some of the broadest strokes imaginable in both execution and interpretation. (“Pretty little lies,” Bob Ross chimes in.)
Mother Jones uses the art of the infographic to cite disturbing statistics regarding campus rape. For instance, 57% of sexually abused undergraduate women are “under the influence of alcohol and drugs.” No comment is made comparing that stat with the next one that reads “4% of college women are given drugs without their knowledge.” In other words, 53% of undergraduate women who are sexually assaulted have had that assault occur after knowingly imbibing in drugs and alcohol. Out of those women, 85% “have previously seen or spoken with their assailant.”
These questionable stats paint a picture of the majority of female campus rape victims knowingly getting wasted with a guy they’d met and with whom they felt comfortable before an alleged incident of sexual assault took place. Concluding that these women made a stupid choice to willingly render themselves vulnerable becomes insensitive only because of their situation. Those who think these women to be foolish are painted in even broader strokes to be sitting in a seat of judgment declaring that the punishment, that is the rape, fit the crime of willful vulnerability. Therefore, in rape prevention training, one line is spent warning women against roofies while paragraphs are spent warning them against men. (How about, “Don’t get drunk” or the even more direct, “Empowerment means not being vulnerable”?) And in perhaps the broadest strokes painted of all, all men become rapists and all women become victims. Hence the UVA situation is the “norm.” Not because of fact, but because of how fact is gathered, interpreted, twisted, and manipulated to suit a particular public relations agenda.
The quandary raised by Rolling Stone‘s recent retraction (promptly followed by a “correction” thanks to those broad strokes) of the UVA rape story is more than whether or not one report embellished a story, but exactly how many reporters and activists are embellishing stories in order to promote a particular political agenda, in this case that of contemporary feminism. How many infographics are out there pumping social media full of skewed and/or manipulated data in order to garner website hits, ad revenue, and PAC dollars to be spent on Washington lobbyists? Worse yet, how much of this skewed data is being used to further the personal careers of many a celebrity anxious to use the word “feminism” to define their brand or “brand” feminism itself? No doubt Lena Dunham and her publisher anticipated that by including an unverifiable, vague campus rape story that matched infographic data to a “T” she’d have a guaranteed bestseller. Why, exactly, do contemporary feminists care so much about campus rape again?