Note: This is a co-authored post by Brandi Rogers (UW-Madison Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture) and Stephanie Larson (UW-Madison Composition and Rhetoric).
In November of 2014, Rolling Stone released the article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVa.” The article details the events of a brutal campus gang rape that took place at University of Virginia just after the start of the 2012 fall semester. Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely recounted Jackie’s (pseudonym) horrifying account of a gripping sexual assault that was conducted by seven men over the course of three hours in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. Jackie was led upstairs by her date, a fellow classmate and co-worker, where he instructed seven other men to take turns having intercourse with Jackie, forcing oral sex, and even thrusting a beer bottle inside of her as an ostensible hazing ritual. Erdely contextualized the story within a long history of rape culture at UVa where a legacy of sexual violence remains masked by prestige, patriarchy, and a reputation reverberating the founding fathers in the midst of institutional indifference.
The original story, which has now been retracted from the magazine, faced critical commentary questioning the piece’s credibility immediately after its release. After the Washington Post among many news outlets chastised Erdely and the magazine for dubious journalistic ethics, Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, requested the help of Steve Coll from the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the veracity of reporting, editing, and fact-checking. Coll and his team received no payment, and the report—released April 5, 2015—highlighted a number of journalistic errors centering around the following main problem: Erdely remained “too accommodating” of her sole source, Jackie, and should have been “tougher” on this rape victim. Mirroring the Washington Post’s initial critiques, Coll’s team concluded that the main problems of methodology and faulty fact checking, though intended to challenge institutional indifference, “may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”
As more information about Erdely’s process of choosing a source whose rape story would anchor her larger investigation into rape culture on college campuses has trickled out, it appears that Erdely began her search with a particular rape story in mind. In an interview conducted after Rolling Stone apologized for publishing the story, Will Dana admitted that “the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story.” Driven by the editorial staff’s conception of the problem of rape on college campuses, Erdely went in search of a story that was emblematic of women’s experiences living amid college rape culture. Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at NYU, remarks that “[t]he most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” That Rolling Stone and Erdely began the investigation with a clear idea of the type of rape story that best reflects the experiences of rape victims on college campuses prompts us, as rhetorical scholars, to ask: Have rape narratives become a unique genre of discourse in their own right, complete with recurring tropes and predictable, required characteristics that we use both to recognize and to judge them by? If so, what tropes are necessary for a rape story to be heard and believed, and what happens to stories that do not fit the generic requirements?
Before embarking on an analysis of the UVa controversy, a bit of theoretical explanation is warranted. Simply put, we understand genre as a category of stories that display similar features or tropes. Genre allows audiences to sort, arrange, and make sense of stories, and genre serves as a resource for invention when authors craft new narratives. Audiences identify and judge the success of a story based on a familiarity with common, generic tropes and reoccurring exigencies. Put differently, if the narrative faithfully displays particular characteristics in a predictable order and number in a given cultural moment, audience expectations are met. For example, rhetorical scholar Judy Segal argues that stories of individual cancer survivorship have become a ubiquitous feature of public culture. Though breast cancer narratives work to inform the public, like other narrative genres, they also “evaluate and govern us,” writes Segal. Because narratives constitute and perpetuate sets of norms and values, they influence how we think about breast cancer, including its causes, its victims, and its survivors, as well as what we do about cancer. Similar to dominant breast cancer narratives, rape narratives like Jackie’s, can have a therapeutic and medical function, but they also support cultural and political interests, as activists use narratives to argue for or against kinds of political and institutional change.
Not unlike those journalists who first questioned Erdely’s reporting, we too were troubled–both by public attacks on Jackie and an uneasiness with the narrative itself. Something about the story felt “off,” but what exactly? Since the Columbia report, we tiptoe the line of agreeing with Coll’s assessment, yet we feel uncomfortable challenging the victim’s voice. As rhetorical scholars, this internal consternation drove us to consider the Rolling Stone controversy in greater detail. Our analysis of the controversy points to three major findings: 1) Individual rape testimonies comprise a unique narrative genre constituted by and predicated upon public expectations; 2) The rape narrative genre obfuscates institutional, communal, and even social culpability because of its myopic focus on the individual; and 3) We fear testimonies that don’t behave accordingly to generic conventions will remain silenced or when heard, be distrusted.
Falling in line with a legacy of narratives that determine how rape stories are told, Erdely centered her investigation of rape culture on a sensationalized recounting of one victim’s rape testimony. The rape story that Erdely sought out and chose as the centerpiece of her exposé included a robust menu of the generic tropes, including physical violence, intoxicants, rapist(s) born in and nurtured by misogynist institutions, and an innocent victim. Even as Jackie’s testimony met every generic requirement–the event took place on an elite college campus, at a fraternity house, under the influence of alcohol, by an acquaintance-perpetrator, who facilitated a rape by several men as an initiation ritual, all the while both her friends and the institution failed to recognize Jackie’s assault–the bloat of generic tropes weighed down the narrative, tipping it into the realm of fiction. Although the victim’s story meets all of the generic expectations of a college rape narrative, and then some, Erdely’s retelling of it still managed to arouse suspicion. If scholars such as Segal are right to submit that narratives must abide by generic conventions that appeal to audience expectations, then the suspicion that this story aroused suggests generic misbehavior; perhaps its tropes are too numerous, too sensational, and thus, too unbelievable. Unfortunately, this, coupled with Erdely’s failure to follow up with other sources, led journalists and the public to distrust the narrative, blame the victim, and question the traumatized memory.
Furthermore, we suggest that though rape narratives generally seek to prove institutional culpability, they are incapable of doing this work in light of a series of tropes that pivot back to the individual. The narrative along with its perennial features distracts us from locating institutional responsibility. Erdely’s article and Coll’s report remain fixated on concerns over individual blame: the victim is to blame for not being truthful, and Erdely is to blame for relying too heavily on this victim. The rape genre is entangled in a web of assessing blame that relies on individual memory, traumatic recall, and personal responsibility. Within this case, we found a couple opportunities where advocates might have made the case against institutional indifference with respect to rape. While Erdely expresses the intention of exploring rape culture more broadly, as well as the institutions that insulate and perpetuate it, by foregrounding her investigation with a sensational rape narrative, she loses sight of her initial agenda. Ultimately, as the narrative collapses under scrutiny, so too does any larger argument about how culture, institutions, or communities enable and tolerate rape. Coll, on the other hand, is left to make sense of Erdely’s mishaps, but he, too, is unable to escape assessing the tropes of Jackie’s narrative. In doing so, his report implicitly stages an archetypal rape victim as inherently unbelievable.
The continued reliance on individual rape narratives as a method of getting at the problem of rape constrains our ability to talk about rape, and it elides other discursive approaches that might improve our understanding of rape. Erdely, the media controversy, and the Columbia report, while not intending to, inadvertently exacerbate our cultural tunnel vision on individual blame. More importantly, Erdely’s choice to focus on Jackie’s story, rather than another less sensational victim narrative, raises important questions about the power for narrative to give voice to those who have been silenced. Ultimately, we require a new means of apprehending rape, one that circumvents the generic demands and generic surveillance concomitant with rape narratives today, one that de-sutures the binds between rape and individual blame. Having exposed how these narratives are packaged into a genre that insists on a set of conventions grounded in personal responsibility in the face of institutional bulwark, we are left to consider how to craft new rhetorical approaches, ones mutually capable of tackling institutional culpability without also silencing victims.
 Judy Z. Segal, “Breast Cancer Narratives as Public Rhetoric: Genre Itself and the Maintenance of Ignorance,” Linguistics & the Human Sciences 3, no. 1 (April 2007): 3–23.