Will the debunked UVA rape story discourage victims from reporting sexual assault?

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Victim advocates hope the news that an investigation into a Rolling Stone article about a college assault indicated no signs the rape occurred will not upend the renewed national conversation around sexual violence.

"Our hope is it won't have much of an effect on victims [coming forward]," said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an organization aimed at ensuring rapists are brought to justice.

Police largely discredited on Monday “A Rape on Campus,” a story about the sexual assault of a University of Virginia student that sent shockwaves through the campus last year.


There "is no substantive basis" to support the allegation that a student identified as Jackie was brutally raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in 2012, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo told reporters at a press conference.

Longo said that Jackie refused to answer questions during interviews with his department. He called the author of the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Erdely, "cooperative," but said her need to protect her sources limited what information she could share. The university, too, he said was limited in what it could provide.


The particulars of the case "are so unusual," Berkowitz said, "so hopefully it won't deter anyone from coming forward."

But John Foubert, president of One in Four, a nonprofit focused on preventing rape, thinks it already has.


"This whole case has had a chilling effect," he said.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, agrees, and noted that "the reality is that sexual assault is already so underreported."


Longo acknowledged the chilling potential on Monday.

"I would hope that survivors in our community, women and sometimes men, that fall victim to these crimes…they have a right to exercise their options, a right to choose whether or not to involve the criminal justice system," he said.


While Berkowitz and Foubert appreciate the role law enforcement can play in a sexual assault investigation, both worry that a renewed focus around victims rights at national and state levels may actually spark legislation that harms victims.

A Virginia bill awaiting the governor's signature, passed after the Rolling Stone allegations came to light, would require a team of campus leaders to meet and decide whether a case should be disclosed to law enforcement.


Laura Dunn, a lawyer and founder of Surv Justice, an organization that aims to protect the rights of victims, called the idea "patronizing."

It suggests that a survivor is incapable of deciding which avenue of justice to pursue, she said, adding that if it does get signed into law, "groups like mine will be looking to challenge it at the first opportunity."


"Automatically bringing in law enforcement without the consent of the victim is not the right way to go," Berkowitz said.

"This is a simple solution that is wrong," Foubert said. "We can't assume that if it goes to off-campus police, that somehow they'll do a better job than people on campus."


"I think some of the people who introduce this kind of legislation have the right set of intentions, but I think it's a misguided effort," he added.

Longo, in his conference, was careful to note that there are multiple paths to justice. He said the case will remain open to give anyone with information about what really happened the opportunity to come forward.


"We certainly can't say that something didn't happen," he said.

Where a chilling effect might manifest itself is in the relationship between survivors and journalists, who have provided a vehicle for getting their stories into the public eye.


“For those of us who have been working to do really good journalism around sexual assault, this is definitely a setback," said Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute.

The University of Virginia has been the scene of several controversies in the past year, including the disappearance and murder of student Hannah Graham and the recent bloody arrest of black honors student Martese Johnson.


"These students have been through…so much in the last seven months…but they keep getting up," Longo said. "I hope that continues to happen."

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.