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Rape, Rolling Stone, and the radical notion that women are trustworthy

Last week, Rolling Stone distanced themselves from the tale of a horrifying gang rape at the heart of their story about the culture of sexual violence at the University of Virginia, after concerns arose about “discrepancies” in the account of the survivor, Jackie. Now the Washington Post is re-investigating those discrepancies, uncovering major mistakes in Rolling Stone‘s reporting. The details of what happened to Jackie are now up for vehement debate in the media, though by all accounts, she “experienced a horrific trauma,” as one of her friends — who saw her on the night of the assault — told the Post.

When Rolling Stone threw Jackie under the bus last week, they initially did so by saying, “Our trust in her was misplaced.”

That sentence felt — still feels — like a gut punch. Just six words, but six words that contain so much of what is wrong in our society’s attempt to deal with sexual violence.

“Our trust in her was misplaced.”

Rolling Stone’s managing editor Will Dana backtracked on that statement, saying that the magazine should have done many things differently. “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie,” Dana wrote.

But the statement about misplaced trust in the rape survivor came first, and the damage was already done. The idea that women cannot be trusted when it comes to the carnal is ancient — Biblical — and it is entrenched in contemporary culture. With that statement, Rolling Stone fell victim to, and fed directly into, one of the oldest and most harmful myths about women and sex: women are not to be trusted. They say one thing and mean another. They lie about being raped.

They lie to cover up consensual sex that they regret, they lie to bring down great men, they lie because being a rape victim is such a coveted status.

Do women lie about being raped? Yes, but rarely.

Studies suggest that between 2 percent and 10 percent of rape allegations are false — which means that the overwhelming majority of them are substantiated. And yet, the belief that women often lie about rape is widespread. About half of college students believe that 50 percent of rape allegations are false. Logic suggests that this estimate is absurd: the benefits of making a false accusation are so small, and the risks of making a true one so great, that no sensible person would do the former. But data are no match for the prevailing cultural wisdom that, when it comes to sex and sexual violence, women aren’t trustworthy. And that women’s version of events, her narration of her own life, isn’t trustworthy, either.

The notion that women cannot be trusted permeates the larger cultural discourse about sex: it’s in our education policies, our healthcare system, and our most heated political debates. We see it in policies that withhold medically accurate sex education from teenage girls, in school curricula built on the notion that girls and young women cannot be trusted with information about pleasure and about contraception. We see it in the hate-filled screeds of Men’s Rights Activists, who insist that women tamper with birth control to trap men into fatherhood. We see it in the legislative withholding of contraception itself, and in the fight to keep contraception uncovered by health insurance. We see it in legislation around reproductive rights, of course, in laws that strip a pregnant person of their right to decide what happens to their own body, entrusting the government with that decision instead. There’s a reason why the abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated in 2009, made the case for abortion rights by imploring people to “trust women.”

Then there’s the prevailing wisdom that women lie about their sexual desires. A recent survey found that one in six Australian high school students believes that women sometimes say “no” to sex when they really mean “yes.” It’s an old stereotype, born of a culture that stigmatizes female sexual desire, so that women who want sex feel that they must first say “no” in order to avoid the designation of “slut.” This is the inevitable outcome of a culture where women’s honesty about their sexual desire is punished with that label, or worse. If women say “no” when they sometimes mean “yes,” it’s because they’ve been taught that saying “yes” right away — that telling the truth — isn’t respectable. The result is that young men are taught that “no” is simply a halfway house on the way to “yes,” that they should keep pressuring and pushing, that they should not listen to a woman when she says “no.” In one of this year’s biggest pop songs, “Timber,” by Pitbull, the singer intones, “Says she won’t, but I bet she will.” She says one thing, but she means another. Don’t take her word for it; she is not to be trusted.

It’s easy to think of these myths as abstractions, but they have real-world consequences. They shape our perceptions of women who make rape allegations, and bias us in favor of “he” in a case of “he said, she said.”

Rolling Stone’s declaration will do the same. It will almost certainly have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual violence, particularly on college campuses. Just as the discrediting of the accuser in the Duke Lacrosse case provided ammunition for those who would minimize the problem of sexual violence on campus, “Jackie” will become shorthand for people seeking to discredit future allegations of rape. The result will be that fewer survivors will come forward, knowing that if they do, their word won’t be trusted. The few who do come forward will find it even more difficult to get people to believe them. The result will be that even fewer perpetrators will be held accountable — even fewer than the eight percent who currently go to trial or the one percent of college assailants who are ever punished.

The result will be that we will go on believing, as a culture, that women are not to be trusted. Which means we will go on not listening to them as they speak, as they shout, as they scream. As they beg to be afforded the same right that so many men are, and always have been, afforded: the right to narrate their own lives.

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Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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