Who Is Jackie? Why I Believe the Woman at the Center of the Rolling Stone Rape Story

There’s not a lot we know about Jackie, not really. She’s a third-year student at the University of Virginia who says that, when she was 18 and in her first year of college, she was raped by a group of fraternity men. She didn’t report the attack to the police or the school, instead confiding – a full, pained two years later – to the members of a student-run support group for sexual assault survivors (and then, after that, to Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone magazine).

One in five women is sexually assaulted at American universities – so Jackie’s story wasn’t so uncommon. Campus sexual assault survivors – both private and public – try to deal with their attacks in the best way they can, and many are afraid to speak out or report through official channels, knowing the stigma and harassment that can come when you admit to being a rape survivor. 

What did end up making Jackie different is that, one day, a reporter came to campus.

After Jackie was approached by Erdely, she agreed to share her story – but she then changed her mind. She told the Washington Post that she found the interviews too overwhelming, and wanted to be taken out of the article. Erdely refused (a violation of journalistic standards when working with sexual assault survivors) and Jackie says she felt “completely out of control over my own story”.

After publishing a 9,000-word feature revolving around Jackie’s story and coming under increasing pressure from multiple media outlets, Rolling Stone later said it had “misplaced” trust in Jackie, citing “inconsistencies” in her story – even though disjointed and unreliable memories are not uncommon in trauma victims. Then, without acknowledgement or apology, the magazine changed its statement to read that any reporting failures “are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie”.

But it doesn’t matter. Jackie is now another woman who is not believed. 

Whether she is able to remain anonymous or not, and even though her story of being raped has not been disproven, the fact that Jackie is not and was not a symbol or a cause, but a person, has been lost in the rush to indict her and anyone who believes her.

I choose to believe Jackie. I lose nothing by doing so, even if I’m later proven wrong – but at least I will still be able to sleep at night for having stood by a young woman who may have been through an awful trauma. 

No matter how the media story ends, or what we come to know, there is a reason that people believed and continue to believe Jackie: There are so many people – too many people – who report similar attacks.

As Julia Horowitz, an editor at UVA’s student newspaper, wrote at Politico:

What does it say that we read an article in which an 18-year-old girl was pinned down, graphically violated by multiple people in a house we pass almost every day – and we thought, ‘That just may be right?’

But as much as Jackie’s story has resonated with survivors and become a flashpoint in a larger conversation about sexual violence, it is still the story of one young woman. Jackie is still a person – one who spoke out about sexual violence (without even naming the accused) to then be shamed, harassed and threatened.

The current frenzy to prove Jackie’s story false – whether because the horror of a violent gang rape is too much to face or because disbelief is the misogynist status quo – will do incredible damage to all rape victims, but this one young woman will suffer most.

As one fourth-year UVA student told me on Sunday, “The most important thing is her.” So wherever Jackie is, whoever she is, I hope she knows that there are people who will help her. And that we are sorry.

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