A Rolling Stone Gathers No Facts

By Paul Mulshine Star Ledger

I see that Sabrina Erdely, the woman who wrote that highly disputed article about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, used to write for Philadelphia Magazine.

So did I. Back in the 1980s, I did a number of long articles for the magazine. Here’s what I learned: No matter what a story looks like on the surface, once you dig in it will look entirely different. The guy who appeared to be rich will turn out to be poor. The guy who appeared to be hetero will turn out to be gay. And so on.

Erdely does not appear to have learned that lesson. When she set out to write about sex assaults on college campuses, she shopped around for a story that would confirm all her preconceptions. The story she found fit those preconceptions so perfectly that she didn’t bother to do the digging. She just ran with it.

The tale of woe she tells is as superficial as the headline, which was “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” 

The tone is that of a trashy novel. The student body at the University of Virginia campus, for example, is described as “throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students.” 

The ensuing story of a gang rape reads like a passage from a bad novel as well. First the victim “Jackie” goes upstairs with her date. Though Jackie has remained sober, she follows him into a room that is “pitch-black inside.”

She is promptly tackled and pushed through a glass table, with the shards sticking into her back. Then a gang of frat boys take turns raping her, including one who attends a class with her. We’re told she “was startled to recognize him,” which she no doubt was, given that the room was pitch black.

The rest of the story is equally incredible. Also incredible was the editors’ decision not to seek comment from the alleged rapist-in-chief, a lifeguard who was a member of the fraternity on the night in question. Had they done so, they would have found there was no lifeguard who was a member of the fraternity and there was no party on the night in question.

The Rolling Stone editors are now in full retreat on the article. As for the victim, her friends say something bad apparently happened to her at some time. And if Erdely had done the research to find out the truth (as the Washington Post later did), that might have made for a good story. But she wasn’t looking for a good story. She looking for a story to advance her agenda. 

I discussed that agenda the other day with Joe Cohn of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Cohn told how advocacy groups have been using the specter of sex assaults to force colleges to remove students’ due-process rights. 

Instead of the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cohn said, college sexual assault panels use a “preponderance of evidence” standard. 

“We’re seeing students being punished on campus after hearings by campus panels that have no idea what they’re doing and on evidence that is scanty at best,” Cohn said.

He cited the case of a male student at Occidental College in California who was expelled after a female student accused him of having nonconsensual sex – even though the evidence included text messages from her asking him to have sex.

He told me there’s even a move afoot in some states to have colleges adopt codes that require students to adopt an “affirmative consent standard,” one which defines as sexual assault any encounter not preceded by a verbal agreement. 

One of those states is New Jersey. Yesterday I called a co-sponsor of the bill in question, Bergen County Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle - who has a sense of humor despite being a liberal Democrat. I asked her the obvious question:

“What if both partners just go ahead and do it without yapping about it first? Are both of them violating the policy?

She thought about it for a minute and replied, “If you don’t say yes for clarification, it’s an area where it’s gonna be difficult either way. It’s still gonna be a he-said, she-said situation.”

It is indeed. So why should the college try and sort it out?

“We’re trying to get a new culture that’s consent-oriented,” she replied. “We’re trying to get that new thought process out there.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But it was new thought processes that got us into this mess.

When I started college in 1968, universities like Rutgers handled this through the simple expedient of distance. The boys were on the Rutgers campus and the girls were on the Douglass campus across town. The dorms had curfews.

Then a new thought process took over. The dorms went coed. Before long the students were shacking up with each other. That permissive attitude toward sex led to all sorts of relationships that led to the current cry for colleges to sort them all out. 

But if we’re so worried about keeping kids apart, why don’t we just separate them again?

“As a mother, I would say I love that,” Huttle replied. 

It turns out she has a daughter in college. Huttle’s not too wild about the dorm set-up these days either.

So there’s something we can all agree on - that and getting both sides of the story.