I realize this post will be on the internet for everyone to see. I realize I am about to share (or already did, based on the title) something extremely personal about my past to the entire world. Yes, my extended family will see this. And friends new and old. And yeah, future employers. But being a survivor of sexual assault is and always will be a part of my identity, not necessarily because it haunts me, but because it’s a part of my past that shape my opinions and factor into important decisions.
When I was 15 years old— just a sophomore in high school—my world and the way in which I interact with people was forever changed. I was coerced by four 18-year-old senior boys from my high school to participate in a sexual act that I did not consent to.
The four boys asked my friends and I if we wanted to hang out with them one night. They agreed to pick me up at my house, and my friends were to meet us at one of their houses. When my friends didn’t show, I expressed my discomfort with hanging out alone with four older boys I barely knew. They said they would take me home under one condition, and proceeded to tell me how that was going to happen. They said things like, “we didn’t drive all this way for nothing”, and “come on, it won’t be that bad.” In the moment I felt so trapped and helpless, I didn’t stand up for myself.
That night left me feeling violated and unable to trust many people– especially males– for a very long time. Although it was almost six years ago, that night seems as if it were yesterday. Those fifteen or so minutes continue to affect my daily life. I put a guard up with any new person who enters my life. I look at the world through a different lens.
Today, we hear on almost a daily basis of sexual assaults and intimidation by men in power. This power varies, from high-profile movie directors and the #MeToo movement to prominent athletes at prestigious universities to even the President of the United States. But just a few years ago, it was far harder for a woman—let alone a 15-year-old girl– to speak out and stand up for herself. What I’ve learned is that when it comes to sexual assaults, our justice system tends to protect the rich, white, powerful, wealthy, privileged perpetrators, while devaluing the experiences of their victims.
A few days after the assault, I talked with a counselor. She helped me talk to my parents. She also talked me through the process of pressing charges. The decision was mine alone to make. Did I have the emotional strength to recall that horrifying event in excruciating detail to police officers, detectives, judges, lawyers, and whoever else needed my story for their records? It was so disheartening to learn of every 1000 instances of rape, only 13 cases get referred to a prosecutor, and only 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction. The odds of a conviction were slim and the mental toll of reliving that night time and time again was too much for me to bear.
But some people, regardless of the odds, do choose to pursue prosecution. I admire these individuals and frankly wish I’d had the courage to stand up and face the people that wronged me. I especially admire the woman who goes by the pseudonym Emily Doe, Brock Turner’s victim. Or should we call her a survivor? Yes, that seems like a more appropriate title.
If you don’t recall the Brock Turner case from a few years ago, here’s an overview: a woman by the name of Emily Doe pursued rape charges against Brock Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University. She told her story of being sexually assaulted by Turner behind a dumpster after attending a party with her little sister. Two witnesses also testified against Turner, stating that they intervened because she appeared to be unconscious.
Emily Doe spent months being poked, prodded, and interrogated. She recalled the story hundreds of times in detail. Her reward for being courageous and enduring all the poking, prodding, and interrogation? Certainly not the justice she sought. Her attacker got just six months in county jail, three with good behavior.
I fully understand the whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing. I fully understand that I wasn’t in the courtroom when all of the evidence was presented. But it seems to me that there was enough evidence, including two witnesses, to put this young man in prison for a very long time. But he wasn’t, because it appears we have a justice system that allows you to get away with crimes as heinous as rape—just so long as you’re white powerful, and wealthy. Although I am not certain why the judge made the decision he did, statistics show that Brock Turner’s race and status played a role in his sentence. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. The average income of individuals in prison (prior to incarceration) is much lower than the average income of non-incarcerated individuals. So let’s stop calling our “justice” system something it’s not.
My heart goes out to Emily Doe and all the rape survivors who do not receive the justice they seek. I say I wish I’d had the courage to stand up against my attackers but even with a conviction I’d likely have an outcome similar to Emily Doe’s. I can only imagine how devalued and violated a survivor feels, for a second time, when their attacker is convicted but received minimal punishment. Or worse, no conviction at all.
The Brock Turner case and my own were not just products of reckless behavior. They were products of the society that we live in. Regardless of one’s political views, it’s undeniable that our current president has been accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women. However, he still remains one of the most powerful men in this country. Over the last six months, a prominent Hollywood film director has been accused multiple times of inappropriate sexual conduct, but people still continue to flood his bank account with dollar after dollar spent watching his movies. In our culture, whether we notice it or not, we teach our daughters to protect themselves because it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I went to what I would consider my first real party. There was music and dancing and kissing and red Solo cups—of course our red Solo cups contained soda. I am fairly certain no one was drinking alcohol that night. But when I set down my cup, I remembered my mother saying, “Never set your drink down where you can’t see it”. I was thirteen. Sadly, by the age of thirteen, I knew about date rape and roofies. I knew my peers didn’t always have my best interest at heart. Did the boys at that party know about all those things? Was their innocence shattered because their parents knew shattered innocence was less tragic than experiencing a sexual assault? Probably not. I am not saying males are not sexually assaulted, they are, but at a rate far below females. Something has to change.
My freshman year of college, I was assigned to a group to create a presentation about a problem in our community. After a few minutes of brainstorming, one of my group members, ironically a white athlete in a prominent sport at the University of Iowa, came up with the idea of sexual assault on campus. We spent nearly two months working on our project, researching statistics about assault on college campuses. It wasn’t easy, but I did it because I knew that this was an issue that needed to be addressed.
Through our research, we learned that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted during their time at college. I’d like to think that I’ve built up an immunity to sexual assault, sort of like a one-and-done thing, but I know that’s not the case. I still look over my shoulder when I’m walking across the street from the bus stop to my apartment in the dark. I still get intimidated by big groups of young men. I make sure to never be left alone with a boy at a bar because I know that at some point, I could very easily be part of the collegiate statistic. But why is this statistic even in existence? Why are there so many sexual assaults on college campuses? And why do women have to live their lives in fear that someone, someday, might enter their body without asking permission?
Of course, there isn’t a simple answer to any of my questions; there isn’t one solution to preventing sexual assault. But instead of sharing personal information about the attackers in the media or getting angry at the judge that sentenced them, let’s step back and take a look at why sexual assault is so prevalent. While we’re shattering the innocence of our daughters to educate them about sexual assault, let’s teach our sons to help protect their female peers and to respect women and their bodies. Let’s also work to stop the culture of white, wealthy male entitlement and injustice. There are strong mandatory sentencing minimums for many drug crimes, how about fighting for mandatory minimum sexual assault sentences? Sadly, we are a culture that must teach our girls to protect our bodies because our justice system isn’t.