Rolling Stone, survivor advocacy, and respect

There’s already been a lot written about the Rolling Stone campus rape story debacle, PTSD and memory, the infrequency of false rape accusations, and the terribleness of Charles C. Johnson. There are a lot of things that could be said, and probably have been, about the disingenuousness of claiming that teaching “believe the victim” to lay emotional supporters caused someone in an explicitly investigative role, who has professional training in that role, to fail to follow best practices in their own field. I’m not going to focus on those aspects of the story (not in this post, anyway). I’m going to talk a little about the meaning of survivor advocacy, as someone who has been a trained and active rape crisis counselor for two years.

As many of us know by now, “Jackie” asked to be taken out of the Rolling Stone story, and Rolling Stone didn’t take her out of the story, which goes against journalism best practices for how to report on sexual assault. I have seen people argue that the Rolling Stone staffers were trying to be survivor advocates, that they felt that advancing the movement against campus rape was more important than Jackie’s own concerns.

This wouldn’t really surprise me, because we saw right there in the story that Rolling Stone doesn’t prioritize the needs of individuals who have been raped. The story was very critical of colleges and college-employed advocates who don’t push individuals to report to the police (which, to be clear, is not the same as discouraging individuals from reporting). It was critical of them despite noting that these non-pushy advocates are often appreciated by the people who have been assaulted on college campuses. It was critical of the survivor activism group at UVA – which is doing important work on peer support, response-to-disclosure training, and bystander intervention training, and some of whose members have experienced harassment and physical violence as a result of their activism – for affirming members’ decisions to not report. At least in my reading, it was even somewhat critical of Jackie herself for not reporting to the police. Its justifications for these positions seemed to be that underreporting limits campuses’ and society’s advancement on the issue of rape, so people ought to report and be pushed to report, whatever that means for them.

Now, as I said, I am a trained rape crisis counselor. I have, in fact, been trained in two different states by two different programs. I also teach responding-to-disclosures skills (among others) for my local rape crisis center, including on college campuses. And one of the really key aspects of my own training and the training that I provide to others is that the decisions of the people who have been assaulted should be respected. When someone is raped or sexually assaulted, that means that power and control were taken away from them. The ability to make their own decision was taken away. By respecting their decisions you let them start to take that power back. By pushing your ideas of good decisions on them, you continue to take power and control away from them, and this is harmful. Of course, you don’t just sit back and say “Well, you could report to the police, or you could call a disciplinary hearing, or you could do neither of those things, and all of those decisions are fine” and then patiently wait for them to come up with something. If you have sufficient training, you give them information about their options and the processes involved, correct any misinformation, and answer their questions. You do the best you can to address their concerns. You lower barriers to options that interest them (for instance, if they ARE interested in going to the police but are nervous about it, you might let them know about accompaniment and advocacy services, brainstorm friends who might be willing to go with them, or help them make a plan to call a hotline afterwards for emotional support). If you don’t have training to do these things, you provide referrals to people who do, like the local rape crisis center. But ultimately, you respect their decisions (while keeping in mind that their decisions may change over time, especially as you build rapport with them).

I can almost hear people saying that this approach is detrimental to the movement. But you don’t achieve justice on the backs of the people who have been harmed. If you want more people to report, don’t push people who don’t want to do so, to report to a system that’s often hostile and inadequate. Address the various problems that make people not want to report. That might be a topic for another post, in fact. Also, remember that how the first people react to someone’s story about sexual violence, can have a significant impact on whether they’re willing to tell anybody else – by not pushing, you’re demonstrating that people can disclose their stories and be heard in a respectful way, while by pushing, you may be shutting them down and making them not want to tell anybody else.

My point is, people who don’t respect survivors’ decisions aren’t survivor advocates, whether they think they are or not. Movements are made of people. The survivor movement is made of survivors. Don’t sacrifice the people to the movement.

Rolling Stone didn’t respect Jackie’s decisions. They didn’t show respect, in their story, for her (and other UVA students’) initial decision not to report to the police, and frankly, this should have been a red flag to a heck of a lot more people than it was. And then we found out that they didn’t respect her decision that she didn’t want to be in the story anymore. I really don’t think these are unrelated. They’re both about whether you see someone as a person or an instrument (of your story, of your movement, whatever). They’re both about whether you really understand the implications and potential consequences of what you’re doing. And it would seem that, on many levels, Rolling Stone did not.

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