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Sexual Assault Activists Worry 'Rolling Stone' Fallout Could Stunt Progress


And let's hear now how the Rolling Stone piece is changing the conversation at campuses nationally. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many worry that the story of the alleged victim, Jackie, at UVA, will affect cases elsewhere.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Victims' advocates say it would be a tragic irony if the Rolling Stone's story that was meant to illustrate the problem of rape allegations not being taken seriously ends up making that very problem worse. Advocates worry that questions about Jackie's story will be used to create doubt in other cases against those accused of assault.

ANDREW MILTENBERG: We have been hearing that - I have. Is there any way that we can use this to our advantage? - because I've been telling you all along that her story's not true.

SMITH: Attorney Andrew Miltenberg represents about 20 students accused of sexual assault. He says the Rolling Stone's story should serve as a cautionary tale for campus investigators, who he says can be more likely these days to ignore the alleged perpetrator's story than the alleged victim's.

MILTENBERG: You know, there has been a don't-dare-question-the accuser, and I think that it's going to now be incumbent upon schools to more deeply consider allegations when they're made.

SMITH: When and how to question an alleged victim is complicated. Allison Tombros Korman heads an advocacy group called Culture of Respect. She says friends and counselors have a different role than investigators and journalists. But, she says, everyone needs to understand that the nature of sexual assault is such that some confusion or inconsistency in a victim's story is normal. And Jackie's story, she says, may be an opportunity to make that point.

ALLISON TOMBROS KORMAN: Yes, this may not be neat and tidy and wrapped up and chronological and make perfect sense and be 100 percent accurate when we're talking about someone who's lived through a trauma. That does not mean there's not truth to those survivors' experiences and that we need to support them as they go through the process of dealing with that trauma.

SMITH: In the short-term, Tombros Korman and other advocates remain concerned that the backlash against Jackie will discourage other rape survivors from coming forward. But ultimately, this controversy could be useful, says Boston University junior and activist Jessica Klein. She hopes it'll push people to have some really hard conversations about victim blaming. Klein says the cautionary tale here about not rushing to judgment applies both ways.

JESSICA KLEIN: It's very easy to latch onto this good survivor kind of archetype. This story is kind of an example of how every survivor story is different and that there's no right way to be a survivor, and there's no wrong way. But for someone who doesn't know what victim blaming is, a lot of things just kind of muddle up the way that people react to these things.

SMITH: UVA law professor Anne Coughlin has worked on the issue of sexual assault for decades. She declined to comment on Jackie's case specifically, but as a law professor, she says, it's only appropriate to give scrutiny to any allegation. Inevitably, she says, some people will use this to try and cast doubt on other cases. But she believes the damage will be minimal.

ANNE COUGHLIN: Those people were going to believe that no matter what happened here. And that's - I'm sorry to see that view reinforced. But again, what I'm seeing is a really different attitude.

SMITH: Coughlin calls what she sees a sea change. She says there are a lot more people on campus saying they won't let questions about one case a cast down on so many others. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.