As soon as the Rolling Stone account of a gang rape at the University of Virgina was published, doubts about its veracity began to circulate. The columnist Jonah Goldberg, for example, found it implausible that seven fraternity “pledges” would commit such a violent rape. Shortly thereafter, Rolling Stone apologized for its story, citing discrepancies, and The Washington Post continues to report new errors.
It’s true that rape victims’ statements almost always contain inconsistencies because their memory is distorted by trauma, and they may later block memories that are too painful to process. It’s also true that only a small percentage of allegations—2 to 8 percent—are false.
Doubts about one highly publicized narrative do not justify the more serious collective apathy after allegations of rape, and even more so, of gang rape. Until very recently, the public rejection of gang-rape narratives was about as unreserved as Goldberg’s, whose obtuseness about fraternity culture pales beside his obtuseness about rape culture.
A 2002 study of students at a public commuter college found that about 3 percent were responsible for 90 percent of the rapes acknowledged, and they averaged about six rapes each. John Foubert, founder and president of One in Four, a rape-prevention organization, argues that fraternity members are three times more likely to rape than other men on campus.
In my role as a moderator for Pandora’s Aquarium, a message board for survivors of rape and sexual assault and abuse, as well as in my own life, I have found that rape victims’ closest friends and family turn against them or refuse to believe them, and college administrators have long been complacent about responding to them. That lack of support is probably why an estimated 65 percent of victims don’t even bother to report their rapes or sexual assaults to the police. In any case, only 3 percent of rapists will ever spend even a single day in prison, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
When rapes involve weapons or physical injuries, victims are more likely to report them. But in my experience, women who do report rapes are often not believed.
Gang-rape victims encounter even more disbelief, in my opinion. In the case of an 11-year-old rape victim in Cleveland, Tex., where there was video evidence of her rape by 20 men and boys, one of the defense attorneys blamed the victim for luring her rapists “like the spider and the fly.” When I finally wrote in The Chronicle about my rape by a professor, I avoided mentioning the gang rape that occurred about a year later. The few times I dared to mention it to someone whom I considered a friend, I never heard from the “friend” again. Nobody wants to believe it.
Nonetheless, there are multiple accounts of gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, for example, including an entire book about one in 1984, in which the victim managed to obtain a conviction. In Liz Seccuro’s Crash Into Me (2011), she tells of being drugged and gang-raped at a fraternity party. When her rapist wrote her a letter of apology two decades later, he supplied the evidence necessary for a conviction, which resulted in a mere six-month sentence. Although Seccuro maintained that there were other people in the room, her account was corroborated by a witness (who recalled that shortly thereafter, the fraternity met to discuss the “gang rape”), and her legal team speculated that “gang-raping a freshman was part of some rite of passage during rush at Phi Kappa Psi,” the charge went nowhere at the time.
One would hope that during the last 30 years, fraternities had created a safer climate for women.
When a gang-rape victim dies, especially when she is not on American soil, the public seems to concede more readily that a horrific crime has been committed. Two years ago, the American media was saturated with accounts of the Delhi gang rape in which the victim died of her injuries. While they could understand that rape to be inexcusable, they had more trouble with the gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio. The 16-year-old victim was dismissed by some as a “stupid, drunk, helmet-chasing whore,” while the rapists garnered considerable sympathy, most conspicuously from CNN’s Poppy Harlow, who bemoaned the fact that the high-school athletes’ futures would be ruined rather than that of the girl.
Rejecting the narrative of gang rape is like ignoring a forest because we question the stability of a single tree. The narrative’s outline has a timeless truth, summarized in Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Fraternity Gang Rape (New York University Press, 1990). “There is a similarity of pattern in these incidents,” wrote Lois G. Forer in the foreword of the 2007 edition. “The men are on their own ‘turf,’ whether it be a part of a park, a shack, or a fraternity house. The identity of the woman is irrelevant. … All the men drink a great deal of liquor. Then, in the presence of the entire group, each has sex in turn with the female. … While individually they probably would not engage in such brutal and degrading conduct, when reinforced by their companions, they exhibit no sense of what most men and women consider decency or compassion. … The woman involved is a tool, an object, the centerfold around which boys both test and demonstrate their power and heterosexual desire by performing for one another.”
The recent alleged victim’s recollection of one member’s objectifying command “Grab its … leg” rings true for me. When I was gang-raped, I vividly recall tears streaming down my face, but nobody in the room seemed to care. I did not think they would care even if I died. While details are blurry, for me as well as for other victims, I can only hope that the apathy that has long surrounded accusations of gang rape will finally end.
Donna L. Potts is a professor of English at Washington State University.