This week, Rolling Stone printed an editor's note retracting one of the most highly praised pieces of investigative journalism in its history. That piece, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, alleged that several members of the University of Virginia fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, had raped a 19-year-old student named Jackie, including with foreign objects, as she lay on a floor covered with broken glass. The article resulted in the university suspending the fraternity's activities, and national outrage over the so-called "rape culture" on campus.
That rape culture supposedly leads to one in five women being sexually assaulted on campus -- a faulty statistic from a poll that didn't even ask women if they were raped or sexually assaulted, and instead defined sex while inebriated at any level as rape. With regard to reported rape, the federal government reports a rate of just 1.3 per 1,000 Americans. That is, of course, far too high. But it is not a rape culture by any plausible definition.
Nonetheless, the narrative of women as victims of brutish male society must be forwarded at all costs, for political purposes. If Americans are brutish sexists waiting to rape unsuspecting women, bigger government becomes a necessity. That's why President Obama has cited that one-in-five statistic, and suggested that America experiences "quiet tolerance of sexual assault."
In order to forward that narrative, all rape stories are treated as fact sans investigation of any kind. And so Jackie's story of gang rape received plaudits across the media landscape.
Then it fell apart.
The Washington Post quickly debunked the story. According to the Post, the fraternity says there was no event the night Jackie was allegedly raped, Jackie's friends "have not been able to verify key points in recent days," and one of the men named in Jackie's report stated that "he never met Jackie in person and never took her out on a date."
As the Rolling Stone report collapsed, members of the left jumped to defend Jackie. Sally Kohn of CNN.com tweeted that people should stop questioning Jackie's story: "While aspects of UVA rape story now in question, still unsettles me that pouncing by skeptics mirrored sort of doubt rape victims often face." Feminist Melissa McEwan wrote, "If Jackie's story is partially or wholly untrue, it doesn't validate the reasons for disbelieving her."
Under this logic, Atticus Finch was the villain in "To Kill a Mockingbird." After all, how dare he question the rape allegations of a victimized woman and defend Tom Robinson?
But for the left, it's narrative first, facts second.
The same holds true regarding allegations made by HBO star Lena Dunham, who wrote of her own alleged rape at the hands of an Oberlin "college Republican" named Barry. When it turned out that Barry, a readily identifiable person from Dunham's days at Oberlin, did not rape her, the media largely went silent; Dunham still has not spoken on the issue.
Narrative first. Facts second.
Here is the reality: All decent human beings believe that rape is evil. They also believe that false allegations of rape are wrong. These two positions are not mutually exclusive. They complement one another. False rape allegations do actual rape victims a tremendous disservice: to lump in false accusations of rape with true accusations of rape makes people more skeptical of rape victims generally, a horrible result. Rape should be taken seriously; rape accusations should be taken seriously. That means taking factual questions seriously, not merely throwing the word "rape" around casually, without evidence, and without regard for truth.