The explosive expose about a ghastly gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house, as reported by Rolling Stone magazine, has some holes in it. Rolling Stone has issued an apology for failing to ask the right questions and interview all involved — practices that are fundamental to good journalism.
Whether "Jackie" suffered a horrific assault by a gang of fraternity brothers, as the magazine reported, has now been called into question. Some of the details of the allegation, as reported, do not appear to be substantiated by facts. Even some of "Jackie's" supporters have some doubts about the veracity of her tale.
So why would a major national magazine be so slipshod in its reporting on such a volatile and potentially defamatory allegation? Rolling Stone seems to have been allured by the notion that any allegation of sexual assault must be true. After all, any woman willing to tell about such a humiliating assault must be telling the truth! So why do the basic reporting of corroborating allegations, allowing persons accused of crimes or misbehavior to respond to charges, and checking details provided by an accuser?
One can only conclude that sexual assault on campus has become the 21st century version of the child sexual abuse crimes of the 1980s and 1990s. For about a decade, police and prosecutors accepted as divine truth the claims that preschool children were being sexually abused by day-care workers and other care-givers. Police added specialists trained to ferret out the sublimated memories of horrible abuse. Many were very successful in coaxing tales of abuse from children who were properly prompted to tell outlandish stories.
Adults jumped aboard this freight train of good intentions and demanded that investigators "Believe the Children," in the words of an often-used picket sign. They demanded that the courts accept the children's stories as true, even if the stories included mutilations, murder, magical animals, secret rooms (which could never be found) and trips on space ships. Nearly the entire staff of the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, N.C. were indicted, and two were convicted in the frenzy to protect children from sexual predators disguised as day care workers, cooks and clerks. In the end, all of the day-care sexual predator convictions were discredited, although the ruined lives could not be restored to the innocent accused.
Claims of how many women are raped on college campuses have taken on the sacrosanct aura of the "Believe the Children" demonstrations. Colleges and advocates for women's safety have created a dilemma. They want to stop sexual assault, but they don't want to turn the allegations over to professional law enforcement, and they don't want assault allegations to be judged in the harsh light of a criminal court. When any boorish or offensive behavior can be labeled sexual assault, the numbers of incidents are astounding, especially among young males and females at the peak of their sexual interest and with easy access to excessive alcohol stimulation.
Sexual assault is a crime that should be prosecuted in criminal courts, not in student-led "honor court" without legal standing, constitutional protections or the authority to impose the kind of punishment sexual assault warrants. At worst, a student court might sentence an offender to expulsion from school. Big deal. There are other schools and other women. Conviction in a criminal court, however, carries more serious consequences — a long prison term and a lifetime label as a sex criminal.
Keeping sexual assault bottled up in student courts diminishes the seriousness of the crime. Today's students will not remember that 50 years ago, conviction of rape could be punished by execution in many states, including North Carolina. Would the victim's advocates now demanding greater regulation of sexual contacts on college campuses be willing to have student courts sentence a collegiate offender to death?
Deciding that in the relationships between men and women on college campuses, there is only one side to the story, as Rolling Stone apparently did, does not advance women's safety or an honest assessment of the seriousness of sexual assault.