How authorities and the victims themselves can address this crisis
The outcome of the rape case against Brock Turner has created national dialogue about the intersection of violence against women, campus sexual assault, race and class, privilege and discrimination, the role of the campus adjudication process and the flaws in our criminal justice system. Many question the six month sentence a former student athlete at Stanford University received after being found guilty of three felony counts. There is also outrage directed at the judge who determined the sentence. Lost in the noise are the survivors who have listened and observed the reactions of their communities. Because each time a news story flashes across the television, each time there is a post on social media, and each time an article pops up online, survivors everywhere are heartbreakingly reminded of their own experience.
The dialogue around this case of sexual violence has both positive and negative consequences. There is an emotional impact on survivors who are listening intently to the victim-blaming statements, the rallying cries of protest and the solidarity expressed for the victim. Some survivors may feel hope that there has been justice in this case, even though they did not receive justice themselves. Some survivors may feel a sense of acknowledgement from their community in hearing all those who have vocalized their support for a tougher sentence and recall of the judge. Some survivors may feel that the momentum and the dialogue generated by this case can lead to a shift in social norms, to a culture that moves away from condoning sexual violence and towards a culture that believes survivors and holds perpetrators accountable; a culture where two men, bystanders with an innate desire to protect and do what is right, become heroes just by stepping in and intervening.
On the other side, some survivors may feel anger, sadness, and frustration with a six month sentence – out of a possible 10 year maximum. They may interpret this outcome as a slap on the wrist and the statement made by the defendant’s father as reinforcement of the belief that survivors do not matter. They may feel hopeless, dejected and depressed as they see how once again the criminal justice system has failed to take the crime of sexual assault seriously. They may feel re-victimized and re-traumatized as they relive their experience because of the barrage of media. They may feel outrage that a perpetrator with a background of privilege was given a lighter sentence knowing that this is not always the case for others. All of these complex reactions and emotions are what make it challenging for a survivor to come forward and report. Many remain silent out of fear that they will not be believed and will be blamed. Because the reality is that the vast majority of offenders are never taken to trial much less convicted.
For advocates who have worked tirelessly to change the landscape of how our society responds to the crime of sexual assault, the focus has always been on survivors and ensuring they are heard. Like so many others out there, the survivor in the Stanford case displayed bravery, courage and resilience even though her world was turned upside down. Her story reflects the experience of so many survivors who have struggled to recover and heal from their experiences of sexual violence. Her court statement, which outlines her story with clarity and raw emotion, has generated intense emotions and given people an opportunity to understand what it feels like to be a survivor of sexual assault.
The words of this survivor echo the hundreds of stories I have heard over the past nine years as a therapist, advocate and educator. Yes hundreds. I hear the same words from my clients, week after week. And in reading her statement, I feel the same anger, sadness, frustration and hopelessness that come from being a compassionate therapist and advocate. It forces me to ponder the existential questions of the world, and to question the goodness of humanity.
But her courage to speak out, to stay strong through this trial and confront her attacker fuels me. The actions of the bystanders, who stepped in to stop the assault, show me there are good people in the world. There has been so much progress, but there is still so much work to be done. Let us use this case as an opportunity. An opportunity to reexamine the complexity of this issue and how we as a society can effectively address the impact of sexual violence. An opportunity to act and effect change.
To survivors everywhere, know you are not alone. There are friends, family, advocates, loved ones, community members, and so many who stand behind you in solidarity. We will continue to champion for change so we can create a world free from violence. We will continue to walk with you through your pain and support you on your road from victim to survivor. You are not alone.