Rolling Stone and Rape Culture

By Robert Jensen

Published in teleSUR · April, 2015

When it became clear that a 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story based on a University of Virginia student’s account of being gang raped was incomplete, inaccurate, and in some places perhaps outright falsified, the magazine’s editor and the reporter did the right thing: They admitted the mistake and commissioned an outside team to assess their failures.

The report from the Columbia School of Journalism was blunt, pointing out not only the mistakes made by the reporter, but also the failure of editors at all levels to ask critical questions. The problem can be summed up in a criticism familiar to us journalism teachers: In regard to the crucial account of the assault, “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely was essentially a “one-source story” on the narrative of the alleged gang rape, and journalists are appropriately skeptical of such stories. But in this case, the necessary efforts to verify the story that should have been made were either ignored or cut short.

There is much to learn from what’s in the critique, published both on the Columbia Journalism Review and Rolling Stone websites, but just as important is what’s not there — any mention of patriarchy (the system of institutionalized male dominance in which rape happens) or of feminism (the political movement that challenges patriarchy). Those crucial elements are missing from both the original Rolling Stone story and the CJR critique, an indication of how alternative and mainstream journalism routinely ignore systemic analysis of gender and how thoroughly feminism has been marginalized in the culture.

What do patriarchy and feminism have to do with the University of Virginia story, and why should journalists care? Let’s start with definitions.

The late feminist historian Gerda Lerner defined patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.” Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.” Patriarchy is not one single set of rules, but a view of people and society that is woven deeply into the fabric of our society.

If journalists suggest that reflecting a feminist analysis would “politicize” their stories, the obvious question is how ignoring that analysis is not also a political choice.

Feminism challenges acts of male dominance and analyzes the underlying patriarchal ideology that tries to make that dominance seem inevitable and immutable. Second-wave radical feminists at the end of the 20th century identified men’s violence against women — rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence, and various forms of harassment — as a key method of patriarchal control and made a compelling argument that sexual assault cannot be understood outside of an analysis of patriarchy’s ideology.

In other words, feminism helped us understand that rape is not merely the pathological act of a few deviant men, but is a predictable result of a culture that socializes men into viewing sex as an arena in which they naturally dominate and have a right to control. Not all men rape, of course, but it’s also true that a lot of what is not legally defined as rape involves male domination and control. Feminism not only helps us understand rape but challenges us to be critically self-reflective about “normal” sex.

In other words, the real story is never just the act, but the context in which the act occurs. For sexual assault, that context is patriarchy. To evaluate this, we need feminism.

That’s the context that mainstream news media ignores and the evaluation they run from. Instead, the focus tends to be on individual victims/survivors and individual perpetrators. The more dramatic the story, the more likely it will be covered by journalists, and the less likely we’ll learn much about society. “Routine” rapes are so routine that most aren’t reported in our anti-feminist culture, which means they are largely invisible to journalism. And, most important in this case, the all-male institutions that serve as rape factories, such as fraternities, are rarely the subject of serious reporting absent this kind of sensationalized case.

Again, to be clear: I am not saying that all fraternity members are rapists. But it is undeniable that women face elevated levels of risk of rape at fraternities. For example, feminist anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday’s compelling 1992 book “Fraternity Gang Rape” outlines how fraternities’ male-centered view of sex leads to routine exploitation of women.

That’s the key — all this is routine. In the Rolling Stone story, there was attention paid to the failures of the University of Virginia to deal effectively with rapists on campus, but even that more institutional focus was devoid of any feminist analysis. If journalists suggest that reflecting a feminist analysis would “politicize” their stories, the obvious question is how ignoring that analysis is not also a political choice.

Going with the flow in a patriarchal society only works to reinforce patriarchy.