“Playing the Victim”

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by Lizzie Crocker,

from The Daily Beast,

“Playing the victim” used to be a term of scorn, now it’s a daily modus operandi to score any number of political and cultural points.

When Rolling Stone first published its explosive story detailing University of Virginia student Jackie’s alleged gang-rape by seven fraternity brothers, few in the mainstream media doubted its veracity.

But, much worse, Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely seemed determined to tell a gang-rape victim’s sensational story—more dramatic lede means more clicks—that she did not do due diligence as a journalist, neglecting to contact Jackie’s alleged assailants in deference to the rape victim.

And by giving blind faith to Jackie’s story, Erdely obfuscated some of the truth, leading Rolling Stone to acknowledge “discrepancies in Jackie’s account” on Friday.

“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana wrote in a statement.

And therein lies the problem: in valorizing Jackie’s trauma as a victim of rape (never mind that she was and remains an alleged victim), Rolling Stone ignored glaring holes in a story that was too good to check.

When journalists did scrutinize what they viewed as weak and one-sided reporting, they were met with accusations of victim-blaming. Some likened their skepticism of Erdely’s piece to police casting undeserved doubt on an alleged rape victim’s story.

When Worth magazine Editor in Chief Richard Bradley voiced his skepticism in a blogpost, he was immediately declared a “UVA truther” by New York magazine contributing writer Marin Cogan, who compared him to 9/11 conspiracy theorists for even questioning Erdely’s story, despite including plenty of caveats that she might be telling the truth.

Cogan has since apologized for using the term and acknowledged she was wrong about the story.

The lesson Marcotte drew from the magazine’s climbdown was that it was “interesting that rape apologists think that if they can ‘discredit’ one rape story, that means no other rape stories can be true, either.” She cited no examples. While others were debating the failings of Rolling Stone’s process, Marcotte was railing against “rape apologists [who] are so sure rapes are hoaxes…”

We live in a culture that valorizes victims—where to question one woman’s claims of sexual abuse is to be a “rape apologist,” someone who effectively dismisses heinous crime under any and all circumstances.

The problem with valorizing the victim, as a “victim culture” does, is that anything that runs contrary to the victim’s narrative is cast as an attack on that person.

Question them, and you are colluding in exacerbating the awful effects of their trauma. Question their actions or motives and you are “victim shaming” and “victim blaming.” Of course, the flip-side of a victim is a bully, and it is notable that today, everyone rushes to be a victim—the right wing under attack from the left, the left under attack from the right, bigots still seeking to attack gay people, and claiming they cannot voice their bigotry.

“Playing the victim” used to be a term of scorn, now it’s a daily modus operandi to score any number of political and cultural points.

In the case of Jackie and the University of Virginia, while journalists and pundits take positions based on what best suits their cause, the rest of us might never know what—if anything—happened to her that night in 2012. We only know that the story she originally told Rolling Stone was not entirely true—and, as a result, the issue of sexual assault on campuses is now even more warped.

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