The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Moral Panics Won't End Campus Rape

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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T. Rees Shapiro, the Washington Post reporter who has done an amazing job covering the debacle of Rolling Stone's story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, has gotten an interview with members of Phi Kappa Psi. This is the fraternity that was accused in the article of staging some sort of gang-rape initiation ritual. And the story its members tell is more than a little worrying.

The most striking moment for me: when the fraternity brothers say they knew within 24 hours that the Rolling Stone story was false -- provably false, because their internal records and bank statements showed no party on the weekend in question, and no brothers matched the description of the alleged rapist. Yet the brothers kept quiet because they thought that fighting the story in the news media "would only make things more difficult." 

Think about that. They had evidence they could have shown to a reporter to demonstrate the problems with a story, and they decided not to because that might only get them into deeper trouble. To be fair, lawyers often want to keep their clients from making public statements, which might unwittingly give ammunition to prosecutors, even if the clients are innocent. The brothers didn't necessarily refrain from talking because they expected more trouble with the freelance jurors who vandalized their fraternity house and threw bricks through their windows, or because they simply expected that reporters would treat them harshly for daring to contest the allegations. 

Yet both are deeply troubling possibilities -- remember, the attention focused on the fraternity was so intense that brothers living there had to move to a hotel. Even more troubling is the fact that the media broadcast these allegations widely, and for two weeks, opinion columns and Facebook exploded into a frenzy of condemnation, while all along the brothers of this fraternity had information that could have showed the story did not happen as it was told. At root is Sabrina Rubin Erdely's poor reporting, of course -- the brothers say that she didn't provide checkable details they could have used to refute the story, such as the date of the attack. But that doesn't really explain the bricks. How did things go so terribly wrong?

The answer, I think, is that we've been in the grip of a moral panic about campus rape. I could offer my theories about why we had such a panic just now, but they would just be theories, highly speculative. So I'd rather focus on the evidence of the panic itself, which I think is strong, and the effects on public debate.

There are a lot of definitions of moral panic running around, but here's mine: It's when a community becomes hysterical about some problem -- often, but not always, a real one -- that becomes defined as an existential threat to public safety and moral order. In such a climate, questioning how big the threat actually is, or contesting any particular example, is not a matter of rational discussion, but of heresy. 

While the moral panic is raging, ludicrous and improbable stories suddenly become convincing, and it's dangerous to question them, because why are you defending witches? Are YOU a witch?

One of the most glaring modern instances of a moral panic is probably the alleged great ritual satanic abuse cases at preschools such as Fells Acres and McMartin in the 1980s, in which presumably competent adults suddenly began to believe obvious confabulations by young children being incompetently interviewed, which ranged from unlikely in the extreme (a sexual assault that took place in a hot air balloon) to obviously physically impossible (children being driven through nonexistent underground tunnels beneath a school). Families were arrested and put on trial in these bizarre cases and, in the case of the Amiraults of Fells Acres, put in jail for lengthy periods. Even after people woke up to the obvious problems with relying on the extensively coached testimony of 4-year-olds, and a Massachusetts parole board recommended 5-0 that Gerald Amirault have his sentence commuted, prosecutor Martha Coakley (yes, that Martha Coakley) lobbied to keep him in jail, and then-acting Governor Jane Swift denied the commutation.

The sexual abuse of children is not an imaginary problem. It is one of the worst crimes known to our society, and it happens all too tragically often. But somehow, in the 1980s, we became convinced that it was an omnipresent threat, and that we must go to any lengths to eradicate it -- up to, and including, believing in the impossible. Many people seem to have swallowed their doubts about these stories for fear of being denounced -- just as folks such as Richard Bradley, who first raised questions about the Rolling Stone story, were accused of "rape denial" and being "truthers." 

When people are in the grip of a moral panic, going up against them to question the extent of a threat, even by doubting so much as a single case, can become dangerous. Questioning any expression of the panic is not seen as a logical debate over statistics or the details of a particular instance, but as somehow defending the threatening behavior. Note how careful many people who wrote skeptically about the UVA case were to say that they believe campus rape happens, and it is terrible. People who write that they think an accused murderer may be innocent rarely feel compelled to affirm that yes, they sure do believe that murder happens, and boy, are they against that. This ought to go without saying, and unless we are in the middle of a moral panic, it usually does.

Yet once moral panic sets in, an accusation can also become sufficient evidence unto itself to trigger a severe response: no need to see what the brothers might have to say, or to wait for a police investigation, before you write that op-ed article about rape culture -- or start throwing bricks.

Unfortunately, our panicked determination to believe does not ultimately help the cause; in fact, such determination hurts the cause, as well as the innocent people whose names are tarnished along the way. As Judith Levine wrote in the aftermath of the UVA revelations, "feminism can handle the truth." 

I don't blame the Phi Kappa Psi brothers for keeping quiet rather than immediately going public with their evidence. I wish I could. Because rape is a terrible crime that does happen everywhere, on and off campus. And if we are going to actually combat rape, on campus and elsewhere, the only way we can do so is with all the available facts -- facts that tend to get scarce when a moral panic is in full swing. 

(Corrects spelling of former acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift's name in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net