Rolling Stone’s recent cover story about rape at the University of Virginia has a far more legitimate claim to having “broken the Internet” than Kim Kardashian’s racy photos. In the two weeks since the piece appeared online, in has gone viral on social media and ignited a wide-ranging discussion about rape on college campuses. Its vivid depiction of the alleged gang rape of a college freshman, whom the piece refers to as “Jackie,” by seven fraternity members fueled such outrage among current students and alums that the university has suspended all fraternities for the rest of the year.
The Rolling Stone story was groundbreaking in that—unlike most media treatments of rape, which presume the perpetrator’s innocence and reserve all skepticism for the victim—it privileged the victim’s point of view. The detailed narrative of the attack proceeds without the interruption of typical journalistic qualifiers (“she alleged that,” “according to Jackie”). This provided a rare opportunity for the reader to experience the attack’s brutality as Jackie remembered it. The magazine’s editors defended this stylistic choice, saying it was clear the account represented Jackie’s recollection rather than the journalist’s findings of fact.
But since its publication, the story has begun to unravel. The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, initially came under fire for failing to interview any of the young men accused of rape, whose names are not used in the article but whose identities might be deciphered from various details, including the name of the fraternity to which they belonged, which was identified. Erdely has said she chose not to contact the alleged attackers at the request of the victim, who feared retaliation—including further violence—from her attackers or others. Erdely did, however, seek to verify the account of the rape by speaking with friends and other rape survivors in whom Jackie had confided, as well as university administrators to whom she had reached out to for help.
As the story gained steam, other critics—including Slate’s Hanna Rosin, The New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple—questioned what they viewed as inconsistencies in Jackie’s story. Jonah Goldberg of the conservative magazine National Review said the account stretched credulity.