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Why did it take a gang-rape allegation to make us care?

The story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity may have fallen apart Friday.

But it doesn’t mean that everything at U-Va. is OK. It doesn’t mean that rape doesn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that Virginia and other universities treat rape, sexual assault, non-consensual sex or whatever they want to call it as serious crimes that deserve serious criminal investigations and serious punishments.

What it means is that it took an alleged gang rape to get our attention. To make us care.

Jackie, the young woman who was the subject of the sensational and questionable Rolling Stone magazine story, said she was brutally attacked by seven men at a fraternity party. But what if she’d said she was raped by a guy down the hall — a much more typical story among the 1 in 5 college women who have been sexually assaulted. How much outrage would that have generated?

What is the magic number of attackers needed for campuses to stop letting rapists roam their campuses? University women go to emergency rooms, dazed, bleeding and injured by the hundreds. Semen samples from rape kits pile up in evidence rooms. But we don’t listen.

We only gasp when the crime supposedly involves a gang of young men, a dark room, blood, a beer bottle and a sweet freshman who didn’t even want to get tipsy and wore a high-necked dress.

We still don’t know what happened inside the Phi Kappa Psi house that night in September 2012, though The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro has done amazing reporting to find out as much of the truth as he can. The fraternity issued a statement Friday that there wasn’t a party there that night and that no assault took place in its house. On Friday afternoon, even Rolling Stone backed off its story, explaining, “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in (Jackie) was misplaced.”

Guess what? We shouldn’t need this kind of drama to talk about rape and demand real change in the way universities handle it.

The man arrested in the killing of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, Jesse Matthew Jr., twice withdrew from other Virginia universities after he was accused of sexual assault. Would Hannah still be alive if those universities — Liberty and Christopher Newport — had pursued criminal charges against him?

The courts are full of real cases with forensic evidence and legal backbones that may not be as sensational as the story Jackie told but are just as deserving of protests and uproar.

University of Virginia is already under federal investigation for its response to sexual violence allegations, one of 85 schools being scrutinized. The investigation predated the Rolling Stone story. But it was the gang rape that prompted the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, to suspend all Greek activity until Jan. 9. She vowed that any systemic problems in the way the university responds to sexual assault allegations “must be rooted out” — a promise she repeated Friday evening.

“We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures . . . and in our care for those who are victims,” she said in a statement.

That reckoning is long overdue. One young woman’s case has been languishing for nearly three years and is now the subject of a Title IX lawsuit.

Identified in the suit only as Jane Doe, she said she had a beer with another U-Va. student she met at a debate club meeting one night in December 2011. She woke up the next morning in his room, naked and hurting.

She had several medical examinations and was encouraged to go through university mediation with her case. In the lawsuit she filed through attorney Wendy Murphy, she said the 10-hour mediation hearing — where she was face-to-face with her alleged attacker — ended with officials telling her that her case was “compelling and believable.”

What did they tell the young man? According to her account filed in court, the university officials told him “to evaluate your actions and your treatment of women in the future.” And that’s it.

That’s the real scandal at University of Virginia. No gang-rape allegation necessary to be outraged.

© 2014, The Washington Post