When a Rolling Stone article titled "A Rape on Campus" appeared in Zoe Ridolfi-Starr's inbox last month, she clicked on it immediately.
The Columbia University senior was gripped by the nearly 9,000-word feature, which focused on a University of Virginia student called Jackie who said she was gang-raped at a fraternity during her fourth week of college.
Shocking though it was, the Rolling Stone piece offered some catharsis: In Jackie's story, Ridolfi-Starr saw parallels to her own experience — she says that she was raped by two men at a fraternity party the summer after her freshman year. In Rolling Stone's coverage, she saw a validation of her efforts as an anti-rape activist. Perhaps, she thought, the media was finally starting to take the epidemic of rape on college campuses seriously.
Two weeks later, Ridolfi-Starr sat in front of her computer reading another Rolling Stone piece: an editor's note, dated December 5, in which Managing Editor Will Dana responded to questions about the story's accuracy.
"In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced," he wrote.
"I read that note, and I felt nauseous," Ridolfi-Starr recalled. The magazine that had devoted so much room to a story on campus rape was explaining that it hadn't contacted the alleged attackers or corroborated many crucial elements of the story. Now, it appeared to be blaming the inaccuracies on Jackie.
"They threw a vulnerable young woman under the bus," said Ridolfi-Starr, who is co-founder of the campus group No Red Tape and one of 23 students to file a Title IX complaint against Columbia for its handling of sexual assault cases. "And what does that say to other survivors, who often struggle with decisions about how and whether to report?"
That's what advocates against sexual assault fear most: that the way the magazine handled one young woman's story, and the high-profile scrutiny it received, will stop other victims from coming forward. In their eyes, the past few years have been ones of incredible momentum for their cause. Campus sexual assaults have been getting attention from the White House; the federal departments of Education and Justice have launched investigations into the handling of cases at specific universities; and the media have been telling stories of victims turned advocates.
There were multiple reports of fraternities, which are often perceived as hubs for assaults, working to improve their rape-prevention efforts. Again and again, groups were recognizing publicly that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five women has been raped.
At first, the Rolling Stone piece seemed to add to this momentum. Then, after days of scrutiny on the magazine's reporting practices, its managing editor discredited the story's most prominent source in a statement Friday. By Sunday, that statement had been changed to include language that shifted responsibility away from Jackie and onto Rolling Stone and its judgment in its reporting and editing process.
But the damage had been done, said Jaclyn Friedman, who co-edited a book on rape culture titled "Yes Means Yes."
"People are calling [Jackie] a liar and calling this a hoax based on the fact that Rolling Stone said their faith in her had been misplaced," Friedman said.
The broader message of the Rolling Stone story that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely said she intended — that U-Va. and other colleges discourage public reporting of sexual assault — has fallen out of the discussion, while the focus has shifted to whether the particulars of Jackie's account are factual.
"This is the danger in holding up an individual's case and asking them to symbolize the entire system of violence," Friedman said.
That individual can also become the target of online vitriol and harassment, as appeared to happen to Jackie over the weekend, when a Twitter user published what he claimed was her full name and threatened to disclose more personal details.
Advocates against sexual violence say the fallout from this situation could have a number of devastating effects on current and future victims.
Among them is that major news outlets will be hesitant to invest resources into coverage of sexual assault for fear of the type of backlash Rolling Stone has encountered. Telling individual stories of rape can often be complicated by the possible memory fragmentation of the victim, the issue of naming the perpetrator and a lack of documentation that is typically available for other types of violent crime.
Reporting on sexual assaults on college campuses is particularly difficult. The explicit violence in the experience Jackie relayed makes her story something of an outlier, said Dana Bolger, founding co-director of Know Your IX, an organization that works to end campus rape. More often, sexual assaults in college occur in situations where the level of consent is likely to be called into question.
"Rape in college looks like rape by a friend, by a partner, rape when someone is incapacitated or unconscious," Bolger said. "All of these are real experiences of violence that don't look like what we traditionally point to as violence."
Media attention to the discrepancies in Jackie's account — and Rolling Stone's implication that she was untrustworthy — could also reinforce the idea that false rape allegations are the norm.
"I'm really expecting people to look at this and point to this as a reason not to believe our stories," said Amanda Gould, a sophomore at American University who sits on the board of the campus group Students Against Sexual Violence.
Jennifer Marsh, who, as vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), oversees the National Sexual Assault Hotline, says she worries that fear of not being believed could deter victims from reporting a crime.
"We hear people citing TV shows and news headlines daily on the hotline," Marsh said. "In some ways, it works to our advantage, if there was a PSA that encouraged them to come to the hotline. In the reverse, they call and say, 'I'm afraid to tell anybody. Nobody is going to believe me because of' insert whatever story, in which they saw another victim questioned or disbelieved."
Despite these concerns, activists are heartened by the attention a story about campus rape has received and says they hope it can further their momentum rather than halt it. That seems to be what is happening at U-Va., where the school's administration announced that its investigation into its practices will continue and the president of the school's Inter-Fraternity Council has said the group will likewise keep its focus on reform. Victims nationwide, including Ridolfi-Starr, will push to replicate that pressure for change at other universities.
"I think that the attention paid even to this controversy is evidence of the fact that this issue is not going to go away," Ridolfi-Starr said. "You can try to pick apart these stories and discredit details, but it's still happening."