The independent news organization of Duke University

Sex and the single story

The first time I read Rolling Stone’s inflammatory article about the University of Virginia, something didn’t feel right to me. In the piece, a young woman alleged that she had been brutally gang raped at a fraternity party her freshman year and claimed that her peers and the administration had failed across the board to protect her.

Now, it wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t believe the story—I’m more than certain that brutal violence of this sort does take place on campuses, regularly. I’ve heard more than enough reports to know that it does. It wasn’t that I had faith that the campus and administration at UVA had handled the allegations better than the article claimed. Colleges and universities are notoriously abysmal at handling cases of sexual assault, whether they are covering up accusations or denying due process rights to the accused.

It was that the piece felt uncomfortably salacious, the entire message hinging on a story so graphic that I could barely finish it. I certainly believe that victims should have the right to share their stories whenever and however they deem appropriate, but I worry when a focus on a story impedes our ability to understand the larger systems at work.

And so, when the news surfaced that the sloppy reporting and discrepancies in the article had led Rolling Stone to issue an apology for the story, my heart sank. Advocates immediately began asking themselves: how many years will this set us back? Five? Ten?

I realized immediately that this story would join the ranks of the Duke Lacrosse scandal, becoming yet another weapon for rape apologists to silence all women who come forward about their experiences of assault.

This is a saddening misrepresentation of reality, as the Justice Department and other researchers estimate that only 2-8 percent of rape accusations are false, a rate comparable to that of other felonies. Obviously that’s still 2-8 percent too many, but it’s a far cry from the claim that all women lie about rape. Moreover, even though the media and pundits continue to perpetuate the idea that all men should be terrified of a false accusation of rape, the truth is that men are still more likely to be victims of sexual violence than victims of false accusation.

Even so, when you Google “Duke rape,” you have to wade through a page and a half of articles about Duke Lacrosse and false accusations before you can access any information about reporting and on-campus resources for victims. I can’t think of a better way to send the message to victims, “We won’t believe you.” And we still ask why reporting rates are so low.

Of course, the false accusation isn’t the only narrative that pervades public depictions of sexual assault. There’s the stranger in the bushes. The brutal gang rape. The “perfect” victim. Once you start looking for these tropes, you can’t miss them. Just turn on the TV.

While there’s nothing wrong with these narratives and they certainly represent some experiences, when they come to dominate all depictions of sexual assault, we have a problem. Especially as our understandings of consent and violence are evolving, focusing merely on one type of violence may in fact disempower victims whose experiences don’t match what they see on TV or in a movie.

And some narratives do more than just misrepresent the realities of sexual assault; they may actually perpetuate other forms of prejudice and oppression. The rape of a white woman by a black man, for example, is one such misleading narrative that is virtually inescapable in both historical understandings and our modern media depictions of rape in this country. The very misconceptions that facilitated human rights abuses like lynchings continue to influence race relations in our country and on our campus.

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, The Danger of a Single Story, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie critiques the way we use stories to understand the world around us. She argues that people are extremely “impressionable and vulnerable…in the face of a story,” which is dangerous when the stories we hear and internalize do not reflect the complexity of human experience. She contends that when we are exposed to a single story over and over, we start to accept that story as the sole element of an experience.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing a story about assault. Stories can help educate the community, and the experience of sharing may prove cathartic for victims.

But we run a risk when only one story, or type of story, gets shared, or when our focus on a story supplants our focus on an issue. We often obsess over a single anecdote, failing to broaden our perspective and take in the magnitude of an issue. After all, stories are stimulating. Statistics are stale.

If your entire understanding of sexual violence hinges on a story – be it an episode of "Law and Order: SVU", something you heard at "Me Too Monologues" or Common Ground, or even the experience of a friend—I’d like to offer you a challenge. Go beyond the single story. Instead of publicly picking apart the details of a single story, finding any faults you can, choose to revolutionize the framework through which you understand sexual violence. Conceptualize sexual assault not just as a series of isolated stories, but a network of violence used to facilitate oppression on our campus and around the world.

It is only in doing so that we can do justice to all stories—and to the individuals behind them.

Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.


Share and discuss “Sex and the single story” on social media.