April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the way in which Rolling Stone retracted “A Rape on Campus,” a story of a student named Jackie allegedly being gang raped at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity, proves it couldn’t be less aware.

Since the magazine withdrew the story in December 2014, other outlets have been eager to prove what really happened at UVA. This is to say outlets have been eager to poke holes in Jackie’s story and exonerate those she accused. Already the story was bad enough to lead Teresa Sullivan, president of UVA, to suspend all activities at the accused fraternity Phi Kappa Psi and the Charlottesville, Va. police to launch a formal investigation.

All the while Rolling Stone had recruited Steve Coll, dean of the esteemed Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, to investigate what went wrong with their report; “the only responsible and credible thing to do,” Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, said. What might be impressive if it wasn’t so irresponsible is even after Coll concluded that the story’s discrepancies were a “collective failure” of the magazine, Dana and the primary editors stuck to the idea Jackie is responsible for their shortcomings. I say continue because when first withdrawing the story, Dana initially said it appeared the magazine’s trust in her was “misplaced,” rather than acknowledging the possibility their editorial process had failed.

In fact, Coll found Rolling Stone’s writer and editors failed to verify Jackie’s story with other sources. They failed to contact the alleged attackers, and they failed to acknowledge their fact-checker’s concerns. Editor Sean Woods said, “we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting.” What’s worse is Dana added he “doesn’t “think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” and senior editor Coco McPherson said, "I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter."

Basically, as Jessica Valenti first put it in her column for The Guardian, the magazine blames all their errors on the fact they cared too much about Jackie.

“In the midst of an all-out backlash against so-called PC culture and anti-rape activism, they shirked their real responsibility both to Jackie and to all the victims of sexual assault, and it will have a resounding impact on those working to end sexual violence,” Valenti said.

Overestimating False Reports of Sexual Assault

I want to go back to Charlottesville's police investigation. When police chief Timothy J. Longo announced during a press conference he and his officers were unable to gather sufficient evidence to corroborate Jackie’s story (who, by the way, was unwilling to cooperate with them), he added this does not mean nothing traumatic happened on campus — a detail easily missed by those just reading and sharing the short, grabby headlines, like “Charlottesville Police Make Clear Rolling Stone Story is a Complete Crock,” which The Verge proved many of us do.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) cited one in five women (and one in 16 men) will be a victim of completed or attempted sexual assault in college — but more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses won’t report their assault. An assault, it turns out, is likely to have been carried out by someone the victims knew. When looking at sexual assault cases between 1995 and 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 80 percent of students and non-students knew their attacker.

Sexual assault
Steve Coll, who led the the report on Rolling Stone, sits with Sheila Coronel, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's dean of academic affairs. Reuters

Additionally, a study from the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions found female college students who experience severe sexual victimization were three times more likely than their peers to experience severe sexual victimization the following year. And generally, for both women and men who survive sexual assault, these experiences lead to long-term health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites that these include, but aren’t limited to chronic pain, sexually transmitted diseases, increased fear and anxiety, as well as eating disorders and thoughts of or attempted suicide. Survivors of sexual assault are also likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, do drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.

What survivors are not likely to do is lie. The NSVRC reported the most up-to-date research shows the rate of false reporting for sexual assault only ranges from two to eight percent, a statistic much smaller than a majority of Americans would believe. Dr. Kimberly A. Lonsway, Joanna Archambault, and Dr. David Lisak provide a deeper understanding of this in a report published by the American Prosecutors Research Institute’s National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.

“We have all seen how victims are portrayed in the media accounts of rape accusations made against popular sports and cultural figures,” they wrote. “These media accounts show us just how easy it is for us as a society to believe the suspect’s statements (a respected cultural icon) and both discount the victim’s statements and disparage her character.”

The “red flags” we find in stories of sexual assault stem more from cultural stereotypes of what constitutes “real rape” than they do from the actual victim, suspect, or assault. In a story she wrote for Mic, Julie Zeilinger stated, “female survivors’ stories are evaluated in terms of gender stereotypes such as those related to idealized virginal purity and simplified fallacies about uniquely felt and lived experiences, like the identity of a rapist and the nature of the relationships survivors have with them.”

The truth is, there are no perfect victims. Setting aside for a minute women and men making claims of sexual assault have already been traumatized, science also shows a victim's brain physiologically changes once a woman or man has suffered severe trauma. The brain is designed to encode these experiences in sensory fragments, which means victims mostly recall sounds and smells. It's impossible to create linear progressions of these types of experiences. Yet, that doesn't stop some of us from trying.

Where Rolling Stone Really Went Wrong

Apart from the magazine completely abandoning its story at the first sign of trouble, taking more than one opportunity to throw Jackie under the bus, it bothers me most the editors thought they needed to be provocative in order to influence the larger conversation regarding sexual assault on college campuses. A story of horrific gang rape is going to spread far and wide, and overwhelm people with emotion, yes. But the story would have still resonated if it simply stuck to the fact Jackie was yet another victimized college student. If nothing else, what survivor will come forward with their story now that Jackie's been so publicaly dragged through the mud?

The way we talk about sexual assault, and more importantly the way we regard sexual assault survivors, needs to change. The stigma will persist if it doesn't. That Rolling Stone wants nothing to do with Jackie or the responsibility that comes with having taken certain liberties in its reporting is no one's problem but the magazine's. And really, what does it personally cost you to believe a victim of rape?