Column

The University of Virginia rape Rorschach test

Those looking closely at the UVA rape story represent a cross-section of the political spectrum

Are you a “UVA truther”? In other words, are you an abhorrent, woman-hating, “pro-rape Republican”?

Or are you a “feminazi” guided by “rape crisis fantasy” and driven by emotions over logic?

Those are among the epithets being hurled in the court of public opinion over the explosive allegations of a staggeringly awful rape at the University of Virginia published by Rolling Stone. In the story, a woman identified as Jackie tells of being led into a dark bedroom at a fraternity party, where seven men, with assistance from two others, raped her over a three-hour period.

The 9,000-word article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely set off a tidal wave of horror and outrage. Soon enough, though, came a trickle of inquiries into Erdely's reporting methods, chiefly the question of why she hadn't talked to the alleged perpetrators.

And since many of the first askers of that question had conservative or libertarian leanings, the feminist backlash was almost immediate. When The Times' resident conservative columnist, Jonah Goldberg, examined holes in the story, his usual critics dismissed his conjectures as mere right-wing pushback against political correctness.

When a Reason magazine writer penned an evenhanded article on the case, indicating that he initially believed Jackie's story, the liberal site Talking Points Memo nonetheless reacted with the headline “Libertarian Magazine Wonders if UVA Rolling Stone Rape Was a ‘Hoax.'” The lively feminist blog Jezebel did TPM one better: “‘Is the UVA Rape Story a Giant Hoax?' Asks Idiot.”

Such snark is eye-catching and click-generating, but in this case, it's not just conservatives and purported anti-feminists who are asking questions. In the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz eventually landed on an insight from lawyer and feminist social critic Wendy Kaminer, who told her, “I'd guess that the story is neither entirely fabricated nor entirely true and, in any case, compels a real investigation by investigators with no stake in their findings.”

In an interview on Slate's feminist-leaning Double X podcast, writer Hanna Rosin confronted Erdely with questions similar to the ones her more libertarian counterparts had raised, with ambiguous results. On Wednesday, after further reporting including talking to several of Jackie's friends, Rosin and Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt posted an article critical of both Erdely and Rolling Stone.

In the “us versus them” paradigm that so often colors discussions around gender and sexual assault , such a response might be surprising coming from a feminist. After all, it's supposed to be the Jonah Goldbergs of the world (“idiots,” according to Jezebel) who would dare to question a woman's account of a rape, or another woman's account of her account. But the journalists and others who are now looking closely at this story represent a cross-section of the political spectrum.

Rosin and Shulevitz are hardly conservatives. Neither am I. Yet questioning the story will almost certainly get us dismissed as traitors to the sisterhood. If you don't believe me, wait a few seconds for the rants from “activists” who will insist that asking rational, even obvious questions makes you a rape apologist, someone who dismisses all women's stories or won't admit that campus sexual assault is a problem.

Such attacks are not only absurd, they're also insulting. They're insulting to journalists, who know the importance of holding themselves and their sources accountable to the truth. Worse, they're insulting to survivors of sexual assault whose stories should be told without obfuscation and equivocation. It's that kind of murkiness, after all, that contributes to an undercurrent of suspicion of victims — an undercurrent that, unfortunately, continues to dominate many conversations about rape.

Inquiries into this story should not devolve into battles between truthers and believers, the “idiots” and the “real feminists.” Believe it or not, conservatives don't have a monopoly on skepticism, just as liberals and feminists aren't the only ones inclined to believe a story like Jackie's. If those of us asking questions turn out to be idiots for not believing the story on its face, fair enough.

But last I checked, nothing cures idiocy like asking questions.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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