In January 2015, a 23-year-old female graduate student was sexually assaulted on campus by Stanford University student Brock Turner while she was unconscious. In March 2016 Turner was found guilty on three felony sexual assault charges. He was sentenced not to the recommended 6-year prison term, but to a 6-month prison term at a county jail, of which he only served a portion.
The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, has since become the voice for sexual assault victims across the world. One of the reasons she wishes to retain her anonymity is to make it clear that those fighting for her and standing beside her are fighting not just for her, but for sexual assault victims everywhere.
Her 7,000-word victim impact statement, which she read directly to Turner at his trial, has since been read in its entirety on the floor of the US House of Representatives in order for it to be entered into congressional record. It was also posted online and read by a reported 5 million people.
It is not an easy read.
Her letter addresses everything that is wrong with the system. Some have gone as far as to call it the Bible for sexual assault victims.
There is a campus rape epidemic. Do not let its obscurity fool you. Do you need facts? According to the 2015 Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, 11.2 percent of all students (graduate and undergraduate) “experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.” The risk is higher for undergraduate students, with 23.1 percent of them experiencing rape or sexual assault compared to 8.8 percent of graduate and professional students. Eighteen percent of college freshmen report being sexually assaulted before entering college, that’s about one in every six women. Fifteen percent reported being raped during their freshmen year while too incapacitated to give consent.
Of all these victims, only about 20 percent will report their assault to either law enforcement or college officials for fear of not being believed, of being victimized by the system, of putting their families through the pain.
In her victim impact statement, the woman who was assaulted at Stanford University said this:
“I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”
This is what it is like to be a victim. To have something taken from you against your will. Violated. Tarnished. Confused. Ashamed. Scared. Uncomfortable in your own skin.
To then have to face trial and be questioned, doubted, and insulted as you face your rapist, is too much to ask. This is the culture that has been created, a rape culture in which sexual violence is considered the norm. Where victims have to prove their cases. It’s the age-old argument: “She had too much to drink, she encouraged him, she was ‘into it,’ how was he supposed to know she didn’t want it?”
We should be asking, “How did he know she did?” Planned Parenthood unveiled an acronym in 2016 called FRIES in an effort to clarify consent and to empower victims against those who would said she “gave the wrong signals.” FRIES is an acronym for consent that is Freely given, Rerversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. This should be taught in every middle and high school across the world.
Another important thing to understand is that rape is not about sex at all. Rape is not about things going too far and getting out of hand, of misconstrued signals. Rape is not about misunderstanding consent. Rape is about power and control. It is about the taking of something that does not belong to you because you can. Because you think you are entitled. You’re not.
Recently, Twitter user Nafisa Ahmed Tweeted this analogy for sexual consent. These are the conversations we need to be having. We need to reverse the societal norms that objectify women, that tell women it’s their fault when they are sexually assaulted. For example, we tell girls that if their jeans are too tight or skirts too short, they are “asking for it,” but we don’t teach boys that it’s disrespectful and wrong to assume anything about a girl from the way she is dressed. This same society finds it funny when a fraternity advertises itself as the “Freshmen Daughter Drop Off” area and proclaims that they “hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” and even goes as far as to suggest Mom gets dropped off too. We encourage our daughters to learn self-defense and carry pepper spray in order to protect themselves from assailants; yet, we do not teach boys not to rape. Dress codes in our middle and high schools teach our daughters to dress conservatively so as to not distract the boys with such things as bra straps, midriffs, and shoulders; yet we do not teach our sons to not be distracted.
And, to be fair, it’s not all about women. This same culture tells young men that if they receive unwanted sexual advances from an older female, they are “lucky” to have her attention. If a boy survives a sexual assault from another male he must be gay, the insinuation being that he was unable to defend himself and therefore must be weak. Boys can be objectified too. To learn more about rape culture and how it affects millions, check out #RapeCultureIsWhen.
So, where do we go from here and what can you do to help?
Stay informed. Follow your local and federal politicians to make sure this issue is kept in the forefront. Know the law and how it affects your family. For example, The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, otherwise known as the Clery Act is a 1990 federal law named for Jeanne Clery, a college student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room by a fellow student in 1986. The law requires colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to annually disclose crime statistics and produce summaries on security policies at their schools. The law also imposes certain requirements for the handling of incidents of sexual violence and other emergencies. The law is enforced by the US Department of Education, so if you are researching colleges with your child and are not able to access these reports and statistics (and said college does participate in federal funding), it is your right to make a complaint. Simply visit firstname.lastname@example.org to do so.
As an amendment to the Clery Act, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act (signed into law in March 2013) requires all higher education institutions to “educate students, faculty, and staff on the prevention of rape, acquaintance rape, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.” Evidence of the programs must be reported on the required annual security report. This law also includes vocational school and community colleges.
There are many predecessors to these laws that set the foundation (for more information visit http://campussaveact.org), but the system is still lacking. In 2014, a US Senate Subcommitte found that 30 percent of colleges and universities did not offer students or local law enforcement officers training on how to deal with sexual assault. Seventy percent of colleges did not yet have a protocol in place for working with local law enforcement officers in the event of a sexual assault. It is difficult to find more recent numbers, but we can hope they are moving in the right direction. We need to keep the momentum going, and staying informed is the best way to do that.
Rethinking the way we teach our children is also important. Teach our children to be aware of their surroundings and actions to keep themselves safe. Teach them street awareness, as we cannot pretend the dangers are not there even though we wish they weren’t. It is a reality in which we live.
When you encounter a situation that promotes the current rape culture, ask your children what they think in an age-appropriate way. Start a dialogue. It’s never too early to teach tolerance and promote understanding, and you never know, they may just have something to teach you.
We need to persist in moving in the right direction. Only then will we achieve true equality.
Important links (not listed in the article):
“The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf
“Protecting Students from Sexual Assault,” https://www.justice.gov/ovw/protecting-students-sexual-assault
“Clery Center: At the Heart of Campus Safety,” https://clerycenter.org/
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), https://www.rainn.org/about-rainn
White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/Documents/1.4.17.VAW%20Event.Guide%20for%20College%20Presidents.PDF