How Rolling Stone Showed Us the Perfect Victim is a Perfect Stranger

by Saaraa Bailey

Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape culture, misogyny

Last month’s Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” centered around a wide-eyed and ambitious college freshman named Jackie. Enjoying her blossoming collegiate career, Jackie was excited to embark on her first campus party, attending as the date of a member of the hosting Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. This night would end in tragedy, with Jackie being raped by multiple men. The once wide-eyed freshman would feel the gradual dimming of the light in her eyes—her innocence and infatuation a thing of the past due to the violence she suffered that night.

This atrocity would be the first of many misfortunes to follow, including Jackie’s decision to recount her story for Rolling Stone magazine. What began as a beacon of hope, became yet another testament of the way we protect accused rapists, instead of protecting survivors of sexual assault.

In its now famous “apology,” Rolling Stone implied that their doubts of Jackie’s story was due to their commitment to journalistic integrity. This would be admirable if it did not also compromise Jackie’s search for justice and blame her for not being the “perfect victim.”

While not stated directly, Rolling Stone withdrew its support because questions arose regarding Jackie’s account of the events that took place that night. Jackie’s failure to be perfect in her victimization is a recurring and unfortunate expectation of society. It is also often the sole way for a victim to receive validation that a crime occurred. And with sexual assaults specifically, survivors are always expected to deliver a perfectly organized account of events. While accuracy is important when reporting a crime, Rolling Stone should have been more empathetic to Jackie’s situation.

While the apology certainly blew out the candle of hope for Jackie and countless other victims of sexual assault, it also dwindled Rolling Stone’s credibility to be an institutional anti-rape ally. In the original piece, they make the following statement regarding rape and the perception that most women “lie” about their sexual assaults:
A rape heralds the uncomfortable idea that all that harmless mayhem may not be so harmless after all. Easier, then, to assume the girl is lying, even though studies indicate that false rape reports account for, at most, eight percent of reports.
However, this assertion was annulled in their apology, when they issued the following statement:
In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.
While every aspect of this statement is problematic, it is the hypocrisy that is most unsettling. Presenting themselves as a misinformed hero suggests the magazine is indeed the real victim of Jackie’s tale. This depiction paints the publication as a true “rolling stone,” bouncing from story to story with the sole purpose of maintaining the white male ideal.

It is almost implausible to believe that this same publication once firmly stood at the side of Jackie, asserting that “[a]fter all, no one climbs the social ladder only to cast themselves back down.”

Indeed, it was Rolling Stone’s apology that cast Jackie back down the ladder, because certain details of her story did not hold up to the counter narratives by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Their denial should have been anticipated, as this is usually the first tactic of the accused. Their variation of the story doesn’t mean Jackie is a liar. Rather, it showcases the reality that Rolling Stone, and much of society, never believed her to begin with.

And still, there are other race- and gender-specific implications of Jackie’s story, and of who gets to be the “perfect victim.” Had Jackie spoke of being assaulted by black men, her attackers would have been already prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No alibi or testimony to the black man’s character would have been taken seriously, his black skin alone enough to incriminate. And if Jackie was a black woman alleging the sexual assault at the hands of a white man, we know Rolling Stone would never have even investigated her story, let alone printed it. At best, her story would have been a joke or cause for snarky remarks with historically racist notions, like those cast upon the black sexual assault victims of white police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. Black women are never, ever allowed to be the “perfect victim.”

While my hypothetical scenarios may seem out of place, it is important to consider how the treatment of Jackie’s story reflects on the ways our society views gender as a whole. And even more so, it is important to remember that as black women we could have easily been Jackie, but we may not have ever been heard. We are often portrayed as the proverbial hand holding the poisonous apple to the oblivious and well-intentioned white man. Even when we are survivors of sexual assault, we are to blame for our own attacks. Thus, the expectation of perfect victims is not to cultivate credibility, but to maintain the exclusivity of who is able to make allegations.

As black women, we should be paying attention to Jackie’s story, as we are seen as the epitome of “imperfection”; and thus, it is inevitable that when black women report our own sexual assaults, we are also the excluded victim.

Please note: This article uses the terms victims and survivors interchangeably. While For Harriet prefers to use the term "survivor" when discussing individuals who have experienced sexual violence, we use the term "victim" when specifically discussing the way our criminal justice system expects those who have had crimes committed against them to behave.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Saaraa Bailey is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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