I’m old enough to remember a remark made by the attorney for Mary Beth Whitehead, one of the first surrogate mothers, who, in a very controversial soap opera of a custody case in 1985, changed her mind and sued to gain custody of the infant daughter she’d contractually promised to a married couple—and who was slammed down by the judge. Of the judge’s ruling, her attorney said: “It’s so terrible, it’s wonderful!” He meant: The appellate court would reverse it in a second. And it did.
Another “It’s so terrible, it’s wonderful” moment popped up last week—this time, regarding campus sexual assault. It had already become the serious trendy heroes’ cause: Jon Hamm and Questlove joined the “It’s On Us” campaign, correctly asserting men’s responsibility for “rape culture” on campus; President Obama came out in support of the accuser-friendly “preponderance of evidence” (rather than “reasonable doubt”) as a yardstick for campus adjudication of student-on-student alleged sexual assault; “Yes Means Yes” legislation has been adopted by California for its state-funded colleges and is being proposed in other states. As Vanessa Grigoriadis put it a few months ago in New York magazine, a new generation of college women has “built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes and cans of mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.”
On top of this healthy brio, the movement got a PR godsend last week. The Columbia Journalism Review’s report totally eviscerated Rolling Stone’s “A Rape On Campus,” but then—here’s the it’s-so-terrible-it’s-wonderful part—Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner blamed his paper’s journalistic fiasco not on any of his staff or policies (no one would be fired; nothing need be changed) but entirely on “Jackie,” the alleged victim of the brutal gang rape
Isn’t the cause strong enough to at least acknowledge that fabricators, exaggerators, bandwagon-jumpers and Munchauseners don’t help victims who play by the imperfect but improving rules?
that was the article’s never-substantiated centerpiece. Mr. Wenner (a man who’s had decades of experience with fabulist storytellers known as rock stars) bewailed that Jackie was a “really expert fabulist storyteller,” as well as “obviously untruthful,” and he darkly (and English-as-second-language-ishly) said, of the story’s errors: “something sits at her doorstep.” Steve Coll, the Columbia Journalism School’s director and the report’s chief investigator, instantly scolded Mr. Wenner: “We … disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault.” With that epic whine and epic slap down, you couldn’t ask for anything better for the cause.
Except … the niggling thing was: When the Charlottesville Police Department investigated the heinous incident she’d alleged, Jackie declined to cooperate.
So, to my mind, this moment—packed with fresh sympathy for Jackie via Mr. Wenner’s fortuitously mono-focused blame-hurling—seemed an uber-safe one in which to say: If we’re really going to kick all the tires on this mess, isn’t Jackie’s refusal to cooperate with the police on a story she proffered worth saying something about?
Well, no feminists have. Yet.
In the months during which the Rolling Stone article was going south fast, the wagons were circled against this. There’d been lots of somewhat huffily see-no-evil commentary that even if Jackie’s story didn’t check out, it didn’t matter—the “larger” story of sexual abuse on campus was true. There was even some feminist rage at the first journalist, Worth magazine editor Richard Bradley, who wrote of his doubts on his blog (and that hate was, in time, dumped back at the hurler by scary trolls). Then, the moment the CJR report was released, the Guardian ran an essay by influential third-wave feminist Jessica Valenti headlined: “It Wasn’t Jackie’s Job to Get the Details of Her Rape Correct. It was Rolling Stone’s.”
That absolutism stopped me. Really? Not “her job” at all? With the wind in the sails of this movement, can we never hold a self-alleged but uncooperative victim even partly accountable? Isn’t the cause strong enough to at least acknowledge that fabricators, exaggerators, bandwagon-jumpers, Munchenhausers don’t help victims who play by the imperfect but improving rules?
Yet try bringing this up. Female police detectives may say, as does Rebecca Hahn Nathanson, Criminal Justice program manager at Lake Sumter State College in Leesburg, Fla., “Any victim of any crime who makes a complaint and then refuses to cooperate with an investigation should raise red flags to an investigator.” (If Jackie raised a red flag, the respectful police spokesman completely declined to say this; only bombastic Mr. Wenner did.) “Without the continued cooperation of the victim, it is very hard to make a successful case. Also, this type of behavior by a victim does create a tremendous problem for future victims.”
But major victims’ rights attorneys—like the almost peerlessly dedicated and accomplished Dorchen Leitholdt, longtime director of legal services at Sanctuary for Families, New York’s largest full-service domestic violence agency—feel compelled to point out that Jackie herself “did not report to the police. The police came in after the story surfaced.” (This is technically correct. But the story surfaced because Jackie gave seven interviews to Sabrina Erdley of Rolling Stone, and the story shocked the public and university immediately, sparking the police investigation.)
Further, Ms. Leitholdt says, on the basis of interviewing “hundreds and hundreds” of complainants, the number of “fabricators is extraordinarily rare”; to the contrary, most complainants “minimize” their assaults. And, in her long
‘I don’t think that trauma-informed response is inconsistent with engagement with the criminal justice system—it isn’t a choice between one or the other.’—former prosecutor Jennifer Gentile Long
experience, the vast majority of fabrications have been made by “perpetrators who want to retaliate against their victims and make up stories out of whole cloth.”
All well and good. But when I told Marcia Clark, the feisty and feminist prosecutor of O.J Simpson, about the tack I was gingerly taking, she let out a big, rueful laugh and said—from her experience with the “O.J.-was-framed-by-the-LAPD!” cheering squad—“In fighting the PC police, you’re in big trouble, buddy! Everybody’s afraid to say the emperor has no clothes. ‘Jackie’ does bear some responsibility. I never fault a victim who wants to go public. But it’s one thing if the police brush you off—if they say, ‘We don’t buy your story, we’re not gonna investigate,’ (and that happens less now than before). But when you have a victim who refuses to talk to the police but then willingly goes to the media, that’s different.” (In fairness, the media came to Jackie rather than her seeking them out.)
However, there are a lot of reasons women don’t report rape to the police. Jennifer Gentile Long, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia and director of Aequitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, lists them as “self blame—if they know their attacker; or they’re engaged in some consensual sexual activity with their attacker before the assault; or they drank alcohol or didn’t ‘resist’ their attack enough (there is not resistance requirement under the law, but victims may still incorrectly blame themselves for not doing enough to protect themselves).” Also: “Fear of not being believed … and … fear of the perpetrator or pressure/intimidation from the community (campus, neighborhood, circle of friends,) not to report.”
Then there’s distrust of the police. About a half dozen studies, sent to me by victims’ advocate groups and all conducted within the past nine years, present a gloomy picture—only about 30 percent of the nation’s police force is female, with that figure as low as 6 percent in non-urban areas (no recent breakdown of women in sex crimes units is available); many policewomen have endured sexual harassment, sometimes including “rape jokes”; the women burn out because of wisecracks, and so forth.
Meanwhile, victims’ advocates sensitively assess the fears and concerns of campus—and other—women. They offer a wide range of options, “trauma-informed systems,” as one advocate put it, that include going to the police or having the incident adjudicated on campus instead.
Despite the reasons women have for avoiding going to the police, it remains, potentially, the most effective way to see their attackers receive true justice. That is the opinion of feminists who are or have been part of the criminal justice establishment. For example, Aequitas’ Ms. Long maintains: “I don’t think that a trauma-informed response is inconsistent with engagement with the criminal justice system—it isn’t a choice between one or the other.” She urges getting law enforcement involved, as does Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. (who, it must be remembered, immediately trusted an immigrant hotel maid’s rape allegation against the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an esteemed, powerful, hugely wealthy foreign dignitary; had the dude in handcuffs within hours—and ate it when the case fell apart). “That’s the way to hold perpetrators accountable,” Ms. Long says. “We recognize that a trial can be difficult for a victim, and that as part of a defense strategy, victim credibility can be unfairly attacked … but as difficult as it is, the act of testifying and going through a trial can be very empowering.”
A rape trial—and we’ve seen enough on Law & Order SVU to know they can be rough—may seem more like punishment than empowerment. But listen, if you will, to Adrienne Bak, who, as a high school girl in Darien, Conn., in 1986, was raped in the back of a car by star athlete Alex Kelly, who also attempted to choke her and told her that if she told anyone what happened, he would kill her. On the eve of his trial, Kelly fled the country, and, with the help of his parents, lived the high life on ski slopes in Europe for years before finally being apprehended and sent back to Connecticut for trial for his rape of Ms. Bak. Especially because of his flight, he was sentenced to 20 years, 16 of which he had to serve. Adrienne Bak lived with the fear of reprisal from Kelly for years between the commencement of the first trial and his re-arrest.
I contacted Ms. Bak—now in her mid-40s and married and living in the Midwest, and she said: “First of all, I feel so encouraged and incredibly grateful that so many women have come forward on campuses about rape. It’s become less of a stigma. It shows empowerment.
“But I’m in total disagreement with people who say: Don’t go to the police. You have to go to the police. First, the police will protect you and help you emotionally and physically. Secondly, you can prevent another rape from happening.” In the five days after her rape, during which Ms. Bak was making up her mind about going to the police, Kelly committed another violent rape. His second victim did report it to the police. “Waiting was such a mistake!” she says today. “I feel ashamed and embarrassed—imagine my guilt!—that I waited. If I’d gone to the police immediately, Hillary (the first name of the second woman) might not have been a victim. Hillary went to the police right away. She made it easy for me to also press charges. Hillary was the hero.”
It’s nice to hear women calling one another heroes. It would also be nice—in this more empowered age—for feminists to use some of their “cause collateral” (my coined term) to say: We’re not going to be totally defensive. If a woman behaved poorly, we’ll say it. Once. And get it over with. And then get on with this happily successful, steam-gathering crusade. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s what I call menschy behavior.
Sheila Weller is a journalist and New York Times best-selling author of several books, including Saint of Circumstance: The Untold Story Behind the Alex Kelly Rape Case, Growing Up Rich and Out of Control (Pocket) and The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News (Penguin). Her column, “Second Opinion,” will be appearing regularly in the New York Observer and on Observer.com.