Ebola, ISIS and Ferguson grabbed the headlines in 2014, but there is another huge story that should not be overlooked. Historians could look back on this year as the beginning of feminism’s third wave

This year, emboldened and connected by social media, college women formed a powerful grassroots movement that led to universities such as Harvard being publicly named and shamed for not addressing women’s rape reports. They brought the issue of campus sexual assault into the White House, where Barack Obama became the first President to use the words “sexual violence.” The Department of Education released a list of universities under investigation for mishandling sexual violence cases, often letting even repeat predators off with barely a slap on the wrist…

Last week’s back-pedaling on the Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house is an unfortunate example of reporting gone wrong. But it is also a teachable moment about why feminism’s third wave is so important: We must make it easier for more women to put their names and faces on their accusations and eradicate the stigma and fear that silences victims. Only when these stories come fully out of the shadows can we assess their validity and see justice done.

Female college students are less likely to report instances of rape than women the same age who are not in college, says a new Justice Department report released Thursday on the heels of a crumbling sexual-assault claim at the University of Virginia.

“Among student victims, 20 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations were reported to police, compared to 32 percent reported among non-student victims ages 18 to 24,” said the report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics…

“There may be more peer pressure at the college level to not rock the boat,” she said. “Women are much more likely to come forward and report when they believe they’re going to be heard, when they believe the system isn’t going to start re-victimizing them.”

At issue isn’t disbelief of women in general or rape survivors in particular. It’s understanding that the seriousness of a crime — and rape, with its violation of bodily integrity is perhaps the most serious crime short of murder — is separate from determining guilt or innocence…

The temptation to throw out the red tape is understandable. As horrible as rape is, it is also an extremely difficult crime to prove. The window in which physical evidence exists is relatively short. There are often no witnesses. Important questions turn on intention and “he said, she said.”

When you take into account other psychological factors and practical considerations that make rape victims hesitate to come forward at all, there is little wonder rape is underreported.

Imagine watching your rapist go free. Or maybe even become America’s dad.

It’s enough to make one view this as a zero-sum conflict in which innocent men or raped women must necessarily lose.

Via YouGov:

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A new report on sexual assault released today by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officially puts to bed the bogus statistic that one in five women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault. In fact, non-students are 25 percent more likely to be victims of sexual assault than students, according to the data. And the real number of assault victims is several orders of magnitude lower than one-in-five.

The full study, which was published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division within DOJ, found that rather than one in five female college students becoming victims of sexual assault, the actual rate is 6.1 per 1,000 students, or 0.61 percent (instead of 1-in-5, the real number is 0.03-in-5). For non-students, the rate of sexual assault is 7.6 per 1,000 people…

The higher rate of victimization among non-students is important due in large part to recent accusations that U.S. colleges and universities are hotbeds of so-called “rape culture,” where sexual assault is endemic, and administrators and other students are happy to look the other way.

With doubts now clouding the gang-rape allegation at the core of the Nov. 19 article, many fraternity and sorority advocates are asking why the university must continue a seven-week suspension of social activities at the Greek-letter organizations, which U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan announced Nov. 22.

The leadership of the Sigma Chi International Fraternity, which has a chapter at U-Va. that dates to 1860, is saying the university is considering proposals to give police “unfettered access” to private fraternity houses and to require that chapters make alcohol-detecting breath-test devices available during parties…

In addition, requiring undergraduates “to assume the role of policing their friends with breathalyzers is an unnecessary elevation from the responsibilities they presently have when they consciously decide to invite other students into their homes for social gatherings,” wrote Michael A. Greenberg, grand consul/international president of Sigma Chi, and Michael J. Church, executive director.

[Rolling Stone’s] sloppy journalistic vanity is only evidence of the problem; the way we discuss rape these days is deeply flawed and will inevitably lead to these kind of disasters. Indeed, perhaps some good will come out of Rolling Stone’s comically inept handling of these explosive rape chargers, at least insofar as it may change our national discourse on rape to something more intelligent and, frankly, sane. Criticizing Rolling Stone for its “slipshod job” at vetting the facts of Jackie’s rape story, Emily Renda, UVA’s “project coordinator for sexual misconduct, policy and prevention, and a member of the governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence,” said, according to the Associated Press: “she didn’t question Jackie’s credibility because that wasn’t her role.”

Got that? The “project coordinator” for the University of Virginia’s anti-rape apparatus, and an employee of a governor’s “task force” on the matter to boot, felt that it “wasn’t her role” to figure out if an alleged rape victim’s story was credible. If determining whether or not a rape happened isn’t the job of someone with Renda’s credentials, whose job was it? Apparently it was Rolling Stone’s—but they didn’t feel that it was their business, either, convinced as they were that the matter was too “sensitive” to check out themselves. Up and down the ladder, every step of the way, everyone involved blew off his or her responsibility to determine the truth in favor of feel-good rhetoric and journalistic cowardice. Nobody cared whether Jackie was trustworthy. It was nobody’s role to figure it out. So nobody did.

Just a few short weeks ago, when Rolling Stone’s story was almost universally believed to be true, we were urged to read each and every sordid detail of the case so that we might better acquaint ourselves with the broader problems that are presented by “rape culture.” Today, as the story continues to collapse, the opposite view is regnant, and the very same people who pointed excitedly to Erdely’s work now contend that we should not be focusing on an individual case such as this in the first place. Thus are we being asked to accept two contradictory positions. The first: that Erdely’s gang-rape story was important enough not only to justify months of research but to serve as the hook on which her piece was hung. The second: that it didn’t matter at all. “Not sure,” Vox’s Libby Nelson asked last night in a tweet that summed up the volte-face, what the Washington Post’s “endgame is in continuing to pursue” the facts.

Such self-serving inquiries illustrate something crucial — namely, that many of those who describe themselves as “journalists” these days are more interested in moral positioning and the advancement of their agendas than in the attainment of objective truth. Where most of us are primarily concerned with whether a given claim is correct, others seem more attentive to how we react to that claim in the first place. Did you ask questions about Jackie’s story as it was reported? If so, you must hate women, work for the patriarchy, or hope to prove that nobody is ever raped. Did you believe Jackie uncritically and with a full-throated roar? Excellent, then you must be a good person who wants to help women, move the country forward, and do something concrete about the issue of sexual assault. It’s really that simple, my dear.

Those ad hoc standards crashed against the standards of typical journalism. Conservatives, who had been accused of “rape denialism,” were happy to point that out. “When a person is described as a ‘rapist’ or an ‘apologist’ or a ‘holocaust denier’ simply for asking good questions about a report that doesn’t ring true,” wrote National Review’s Charles C. Cooke, “you should expect that person to be vocal when his suspicions are confirmed and his detractors are proven wrong.”

And conservative media was doing its own reporting. For the better part of a month, Breitbart News’s John Nolte has been raising questions about how Lena Dunham’s memoir names “Barry,” a “campus conservative,” as a man who may have raped her in college. The site’s reporters scoured Dunham’s campus and found the story flawed, especially as it concerned a real-life “Barry.” That Barry responded by starting a legal fund. Only then did Random House announce that it would alter Dunham’s book so that, in future editions, no one would mistake the real-life “Barry” for the person accused, by her, of rape.

Breitbart News was pilloried for investigating this. The attacks were of the sort Cooke was arguing against; they seemed to imply that anyone questioning a rape story was endorsing the culprit over the victim. That wasn’t what Nolte was doing. As Eugene Volokh explained in the Washington Post, Dunham might have opened herself to a libel suit from “identifiable conservative Barry.” To many people, not just conservatives, the media’s sensitivity to “rape culture” seemed to lead to lower standards that damaged peoples’ reputations. Hence the backlash.

Beyond the hysteria and legitimate concern, this is a power grab. It’s no coincidence that the Rolling Stone article spent a great deal of time advocating for the expansion of federal involvement in higher education via Title IX of the Civil Rights Act.

As chronicled by Jessica Gavora (my wife) in her book Tilting the Playing Field, feminist activists, with the aid of sympathetic journalists and allies in the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy, have used Title IX as a “far-reaching remedial tool,” in the words of the New York Times, to reorganize higher education to their ideological agenda.

They started with women’s sports, but the model remains the same: Interest groups foment outrage, then enlist sympathetic activist journalists who rely on the testimony of deeply invested “experts” while partisan politicians exploit the allegedly systemic problem to advance an ideological agenda and demonize opponents as sexist bigots or rape apologists.

The UVA story was the perfect — too perfect it turns out — outrage at the exact moment the Obama administration was pushing new Title IX regulations that would erode the presumption of innocence in rape cases on campus.

In progressive online circles, particularly Twitter, a powerful social norm has emerged: Decent people have a moral obligation to believe all rape accusations, and failure to do so amounts to anti-feminism or worse. Recently, the writer and lawyer Zerlina Maxwell advocated for exactly that at The Washington Post. Others, such as Jessica Valenti, have suggested the same. Spend any time in the progressive corners of the internet and you’ll see the power of this norm…

But as the ensuing days have proved, there is considerable danger in applying this standard to journalism, and not merely for the accused. Ultimately, refusing to subject accusations of rape to rigorous review hurts accusers, by failing to build the strongest case on their behalf, and other victims, by producing ambient skepticism in the culture…

The insistence that every rape accusation must be presumed to be true inevitably means that the credibility of those opposing rape will always be bound up with the least credible accusation. This, perversely, makes it harder for those people to speak out against rape, not easier. The notion that rape victims should be believed by default seems humane and understandable. But in practice it leads to a condition where all rape accusations must be true for any individual standard to be taken seriously. That’s an impossible standard, one no crime should ever have to meet…

Rather than doubling down, the most sensible strategy for those committed to ending campus rape is to broaden out: While Erdely’s story may be untrue, and her journalistic failures egregious, the important point was never that individual story but the larger need to fight rape on campus. We have a lot of work to do in that regard, and a clear moral responsibility to do so.

[I]t is confusing to me that since the story broke, activists on both sides have attempted to fill in the blanks with rank speculation about what “really” happened, coming to conclusions that conveniently align with their worldviews. “I think it’s pretty clear Jackie was assaulted, and that her memory of the trauma is inaccurate—which is far from uncommon,” feminist blogger Jeff Fecke tweeted after the Washington Post’s most recent story was published Wednesday night.

I’m not sure what would make Fecke so clear on that point, given the reporting that has come out. And there are many feminists who claim that the situation ought never be clarified because attempts to “pick apart” Jackie’s story are necessarily offensive to Jackie and by extension all rape victims. “The current frenzy to prove Jackie’s story false—whether because the horror of a violent gang rape is too much to face or because disbelief is the misogynist status quo—will do incredible damage to all rape victims, but it is this one young woman who will suffer most,” Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian on Monday. It is wrong to assume that seeking the truth—to the extent that it is discoverable—comes from a place of mistrust or outright derision of rape victims. Carefully examining the Rolling Stone debacle and taking rape seriously as a national problem are not incompatible goals; we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time…

[T]here is something strange in the claim, from advocates at the NAESV, Valenti, and Autostraddle’s Audrey White, that they “believe” Jackie. I don’t challenge their right to believe in anything they choose, but I do question whether belief is a productive framework for this story, because it suggests faith in something that lies outside the bounds of human knowledge. To put claims of rape in this category is to buy the idea that rape reports are by nature ambiguous, and that feelings override facts. The Rolling Stone incident shows that is not the case—many aspects of many rape allegations are capable of being thoroughly investigated, and one of the greatest problems with the American justice system’s response to rape is that police so often refuse to do that work (or in this case, that a journalist declined to). The idea that fully investigating or truthfully reporting on rape claims boils down to a simple “belief” in a victim’s account is simplistic and offensive, as Rolling Stone itself realized after it claimed that its trust in Jackie was “misplaced,” and it was swiftly and rightfully shamed for saying so.

[E]arly critics of the Rolling Stone story were treated as doubting not the story, but the narrative. If they thought this particular exercise of journalist craft seemed full of errors and unlikelihoods, they were minimizing the problem of sexual assault itself. This approach is a classic example of the fallacy of the false dilemma: There is actually no inconsistency in believing simultaneously that sexual assault is a serious problem and that this particular account doesn’t hang together. Similarly, there is no inconsistency in simultaneously believing that the detainee program was wrong and accepting that it might occasionally have produced actionable intelligence. It’s only our own lack of moral seriousness that causes us to confuse the two.

When disputes over facts are misconstrued as disputes over principles, the entire project of Enlightenment democracy it at risk. The liberalism of the Enlightenment rested critically on the supposition that agreement on the facts was a separate process from agreement on the values to be applied to them. The social theorist Karl Mannheim, in “Ideology and Utopia,” argued that we would never be able to separate the two, that we would always wind up seeing the facts through the lens of our preformed ideologies. Thus liberal democracy, in the Enlightenment sense, was bound to fail.

Some writers … are calling for the Washington Post to stop pursuing the truth in the Rolling Stone debacle. That’s one extreme. Another extreme is to pretend that Erdely and Rolling Stone are total outliers. They’re not. They were doing what untold numbers of other journalists and media outlets do every day. And they just didn’t cover their tracks quite as well as others do. Unlike The New Yorker’s Packer, we should think about whether we’re making Erdely and Rolling Stone scapegoats for widespread journalistic worship of narrative and advocacy over truth…

Sadly, for many journalists covering politics, it’s a regular practice to trust sources without question when the source is telling them something they want to hear. That’s just as true of reporters covering “Jackie” as it is reporters covering Congress and the White House. Far too many reporters covering this administration are willing to swallow whole the outlandish claims made by officials regarding what happened in the IRS scandal and, basically, every other scandal that we’ve seen in the last six years. The way Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone treated Jackie is the way a lot of reporters treat the causes, candidates and White House that they love and are passionate about.

So yeah. George Packer is wrong when he says the Rolling Stone debacle has no larger significance for journalism beyond itself. The media wasn’t exactly swimming in seas of credibility in recent years. But the more we push narrative over facts, the worse it’s going to be for us. You can deny it all you want, but this “shattered glass” debacle is at least as much cause for journalistic introspection as the previous one.