About a week ago, a friend of my daughter’s posted something on Facebook that I found hilarious: a short video clip of President Obama attending some kind of international summit in South Korea, and making his entrance across a huge stage by means of a skateboard. I admit that a little voice in my head said, “Why didn’t Fox News make a huge ruckus about this?”—but it looked like the President, and it was funny. So I “shared” on Facebook, with the remark, “I cannot think of any other U.S. President cool enough to pull this off.” Did I think about the fact that some of my Facebook friends are of a decidedly conservative political persuasion? Yes, I did. Did I think about the fact that I’ve put up with some of their posts that I didn’t think were particularly amusing? Yes, I did.
And yet, almost immediately, a friend posted a comment: “I don’t think that’s Obama.” And of course it wasn’t. I’d been had.
The reason I’d been had, I realized later, was my own desire to see the President as possessing a certain sangfroid and irreverence totally lacking in his immediate predecessor—and, for that matter, in the earnest, pious patriotism displayed by so many of his opponents on the far right. In my mind, the thought “Wouldn’t that just fry John Boehner” seduced me right past my initial skepticism. I mean, since when do U.S. Presidents arrive at international summits via skateboard? I had to admit I looked pretty stupid.
From Presidents on skateboards to the college rape crisis may seem like a stretch—but there’s a rough analogy, I think, between my credulity at seeing the President on a skateboard and Sabrina Erdely’s reporting of her now-discredited Rolling Stone piece on campus rape at the University of Virginia. An anatomy of that journalistic failure, researched and written by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz of the Columbia University School of Journalism, was published by Rolling Stone this week.
While the report detailed numerous specific problems in the reporting and editing of the Rolling Stone piece, the most fundamental problems were two: basing an entire story on one primary source, and “confirmation bias”—the phenomenon in which the observer selects facts that support an underlying assumption while ignoring evidence that might disprove it. In this case, Erdely’s basic premise was that campus rape is a widespread problem in which countless young women are being victimized, and powerful educational institutions are more interested in protecting their reputation than in punishing the perpetrators of the crimes. My own daughter, who is a freshman in college this year, is firmly of the opinion that rape on college campuses is a common and unaddressed problem, and if you Google “college rape statistics” the numbers you see support her belief. “One in four women in college today has been the victim of rape” asserts the first website that pops up, adding, “Every 21 hours there is another rape on an American college campus.” Anyone who raises questions about such statistics is instantly accused of “blaming the victim.”
That’s what happened to Emily Yoffe, a writer for Slate, who did examine the provenance of campus rape statistics in an article last December, the gist of which was her argument that, in attempting to protect the victims of rape on campus, colleges and universities are in danger of ignoring the legal rights of the accused.
Reasonable people can debate both these points, especially the first. The idea that one in four college women are rape victims is hard for me to swallow, since in that case it doesn’t seem to push beyond the bounds of logic to think that my daughter, or one of her friends, or one of their friends, would be able to name at least one person in their vast social media orbit who has been a victim, which is not the case—but that doesn’t mean Yoffe has an exact read on the problem, either. Statistics are notoriously tricky, crime statistics are especially so, and rape statistics are the hardest of all to pin down and verify. The reasons are obvious: the extremely traumatic nature of the crime, the stigma attached to rape victims and the wide variety in reporting methods and reliability.
The problem was that there was no debate about Yoffe’s piece. People either loved it or they hated it; they either saw Yoffe as a courageous defender of basic civil rights or as an apologist for sexually entitled frat boys. One typical reasoned critique: “Emily Yoffe can move into a house of bats where everything is made of bats.”
I am not denying or minimizing the horrifying reality of this crime. Years ago, a friend was brutally raped by a stranger in her own home—a deranged intruder who was later killed by police as he trolled her neighborhood by bicycle, though not before he in turn shot and killed the officer who had confronted him. I was with her when she recounted her four-hour ordeal to the doctor at the hospital emergency room. That rape didn’t even happen to me, yet to this day I cannot remember that event without feeling like I am about to hyperventilate.
But for the very reason that this is a crime that generates intense emotion, we need to be able to talk about it as factually and dispassionately as possible, most particularly among ourselves, as feminists. Cut the accusatory crap and start with numbers. What do we know, really, and what is still unclear? What steps can we take based on what we do know? What legal protections are there, both for the victim and the accused? Are universities even the right bodies to do this sort of thing, or should there be some other forum? Can we please examine the weird phenomenon of talking about this topic as if sexually empowered 21st century young women are helpless Victorian maidens whose well-being depends entirely on what males do or not do?
I don’t know if Sabrina Erdely’s reporting methods would have been different had she conducted her inquiry in an atmosphere that was more welcoming to open discussion and skeptical inquiry, as opposed to the intensely polarized and often strident atmosphere we seem to have. But it wouldn’t have hurt. I am pretty sure that my fleeting skepticism about the Obama on a skateboard video might have had more of a chance to register if it had not coincided with my preconceptions about somebody I’ve never met, and if I had not been lured by the prospect of scoring a point for “my” side of an ongoing and highly polarized argument.