A lot has been made about the Rolling Stone article chronicling the rape of Jackie, who during her freshman year, alleges she was gang raped by a group of men at a University of Virginia fraternity house. Rolling Stone has since distanced itself from the story, which has kicked up a firestorm of controversy, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on social media, as well as fuelled rape denialism and apologism.
What prompted the Rolling Stone apology? Apparently, some factual inaccuracies found by the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, as well as the fact that they never reached out to her alleged rapists, in particular the one she accuses of orchestrating the attack. We can debate whether Rolling Stone should’ve reached out to Jackie’s unnamed alleged attacker, but what I find more pernicious is that Phi Kappa Psi’s assertions have gone unchecked and unscrutinised. They’re taken as fact.
What most of you don’t know is that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a piece about my own experiences with Greek life. I hope to see it published nationally here in the USA soon. But the fact is, I am somewhat of an expert, by virtue of my own lived experiences, on the fraternity system and fraternity life in particular. I wasn’t Greek-that’s part of the point of my article-but I was an outsider firmly on the inside. As such, let’s talk about Virginia Alpha chapter’s rebuttal of Jackie, the woman allegedly raped at their UVA chapter house:
First, the 2012 roster of employees at the Aquatic and Fitness Center does not list a Phi Kappa Psi as a lifeguard. As far as we have determined, no member of our fraternity worked there in any capacity during this time period.
So this is pretty damning, obviously, and something that was easily verifiable by Rolling Stone. At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. But what we now know is that Drew, the alias by which Rolling Stone identifies the man Jackie alleges raped her, may not have been a Phi Kappa Psi at all. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for members of other fraternities to attend a party at another fraternity house. It is less unusual for GDI-goddamn independent, or non-affiliated students-to wind up at these parties; I was one of them. So Drew might not have been a Phi Psi, yet the assault could still have taken place at the Phi Psi house. This means Phi Kappa Psi would have some liability. Could Jackie have mistaken Drew for a Phi Psi? If he talked a lot about it and hung out with a lot of them, yes. I was regularly mistaken for an active member of the fraternity I hung out with by people unfamiliar with the chapter or Greek life. Jackie was a first-semester freshman who clearly knew little about college life, let alone fraternities and sororities. It’s possible.
Second, the Chapter did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.
This one actually made me laugh out loud. On my campus, and so many of the campuses I visited, wet events were banned at fraternity houses by the national organisation and by the university, for obvious legal liability reasons. That Phi Psi’s nationals would know about every party that happened at that house is ludicrous. In fact, the active chapter would probably be at great pains to make sure nationals didn’t find out. A date function or social event, such as a mixer (a party featuring them and a sorority), a formal (which almost certainly would have been a destination dance, not something held at the house), or other registered party would be tame by comparison, because Phi Kappa Psi doesn’t want to get sued. Any party like the one Jackie described is extremely likely to be an unofficial function not appearing in the official records of the fraternity. That means, even two years later, the local chapter could say there was no date function or social event during that weekend, without having to admit that yes, actually, there was a party. These terms have specific meanings.
Third, our Chapter’s pledging and initiation periods, as required by the University and Inter-Fraternity Council, take place solely in the spring semester and not in the fall semester. We document the initiation of new members at the end of each spring.
This is interesting, but not necessarily a defence. Formal pledging happens in very structured and specific time frames, but informal recruitment (even if the men rushing have to go through the formal process) happens year-round, particularly with freshmen who may have missed the pledging process the year before. I’ve seen it happen, men who somehow befriended one or two active members and then decided to join their sophomore or even junior year. The time frame of when rush, pledging, and initiation happens at UVA is neither here nor there, because much like the party, year-round recruitment may well have been something not on the official records, but that is nonetheless a part of the routine and everyday life of this and many, many fraternities.
Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.
I 100% believe this. Ritualized sexual assault, I can say with total confidence, is not a part of Pi Kappa Psi’s pledging or initiation process, nor is it a part of any other North-American Interfraternity Council member organization’s ritual. If it were, we’d have heard about it by now, full stop.
But here’s where things become less clear. It is not unusual for individual chapters to have their own traditions and rituals. It could be as innocent as adopting a penguin as your mascot, or it could be something more odious, like the “hell night” I once saw a freshman pledging a fraternity notorious for hazing come back from. The bruises on his back and abdomen terrified me as an RA. I can guarantee you that’s not part of any national initiation ritual too, yet I witnessed the results. Reading back through the Rolling Stone article, it could be that these men were simply egging one another on by saying they all had to do it, even if they didn’t. It could be that Jackie doesn’t remember the details of what was said, which studies have proven victims of trauma such as sexual assault find difficult to piece together. Or it could be that this local chapter has a very dark ritual unto itself, one, again, that nationals would know nothing about. Until it did.
The fact is that the national Greek organizations, the headquarters, can only be so responsible and know so much about what’s happening at their individual campus chapters, run by 18-22 year olds with limited adult oversight. This means, invariably, that a lot of what actually happens doesn’t make it onto the official record, and doesn’t become part of the historic narrative. The chapter may have no record of the party Jackie attended, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party that night.
And it also remains that what Phi Kappa Psi has said in their statement is only half the story. Yes, what they said may all be technically true, but it doesn’t mean that things didn’t transpire exactly, or close to, as Jackie described to Rolling Stone. Anyone who knows Greek Life will know this, even if they’re loathed to admit it.
We can talk about journalistic integrity and whether it was a dereliction of duty and due diligence for Rolling Stone not to contact Jackie’s accused rapists or look into some of these details themselves. But what we’re not going to do is cast the veil of doubt over Jackie’s account while letting the rebuttal by Phi Kappa Psi and others go unscrutinised.
The fact is, there’s a lot of wiggle room Phi Kappa Psi has given itself. They’ve done a good job of bringing Jackie’s account into question, but they have done it with the hope and the knowledge that most journalists don’t know the realities of how Greek life works on a grassroots, day-to-day level, and with the hope that no one would question this because, well, facts. But their facts give way to reality, and the reality is that what Phi Kappa Psi said in its statement is only the official truth. The actual truth is much more convoluted, and likely much, much closer to Jackie’s story than they’d ever care to admit.
Update, 5 April 2015: Today, the Columbia School of Journalism published its report on the journalistic lapses of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus,” and I wanted to make sure those were included here. Back when this blog was initially published, Rubin Erdeley’s reporting was just being called into question and the story only starting to unravel. What the CSJ report has found is a complete dereliction of duty. Make no mistakes: this report is damning. Rubin Erdely, her editors, and Rolling Stone should have and could have done better.
As a blogger, essayist, and especially as a journalist, accuracy matters. While I stand by my overall analysis of and commentary on Phi Kappa Psi’s statement from December 2014–the gist being that things on Greek Row are not always what they seem–it has become very clear and unequivocal that things likely did transpire closer to what Phi Kappa Psi claims than to what Jackie told Rubin Erdely.