This week, the nation has been rocked by extensive coverage surrounding Brock Turner, a 20-year-old man who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman the Stanford University campus in 2015, and his subsequent trial and six-month sentence. Brock's father added to the maelstrom, issuing a letter stating his son's sentence was overly steep for "20 minutes of action," drawing widely-shared criticism claiming that Turner's father and Turner himself perpetual rape culture in their continued disbelief and defensiveness. What hit home, in particular, was the sexual assault survivor's powerful impact statement, read on-air by CNN's Ashleigh Banfield.
Hearing the victim's words read aloud, listening to the gritty details about the physical and emotional trauma she endured, has caused some commentators to label the letter "required reading" for everyone from sons to college freshman. The victim's statement had an immediate impact on me, as a sexual abuse and assault survivor myself — it reminded me more than ever that people need to hear and read the words of sexual assault victims. They need to know what we go through, know what we endure, and know what we survive.
While the furor from this case will inevitably die down, millions of women (and men) will continue to be victimized, continue feel the brunt of our culture's inability to tackle the roots of rape, assault and abuse head-on. Until the day when teaching boys not to rape is commonplace, the words of assault survivors will be paramount.
"I'm A Rape Survivor With A Rape Apologist Son" by Jody Allard
This powerful essay by a woman named Jody Allard is essential in light of Turner's father's defense of his son. Allard details her son's increasingly disturbing comments regarding the Stuebenville rape scandal, the reportedly false allegations of a Rolling Stone writer about a rape at the University of Virginia, and the controversy surrounding Emma Sulcowicz's "Carry That Weight" project in which she carried the mattress on which she was raped around Columbia University in protest of the school's mishandling of her claim. Allard discusses how appalling it was to hear her son's defense of the rapists in each case:
To say that my entire parenting career flashed before my eyes in that moment is an understatement. As he continued to speak, rattling off every apologist argument I’ve ever heard—spewing like spittle from the mouth of an anonymous Internet troll—I was faced with a deeply unsettling truth: I had raised a rape apologist.
Allard, who didn't tell her children about her rape until she could no longer stand to hear her son's apologist opinions, found the power of her own story, and how finally speaking up about being raped gave her back the power her rapist took away from her.
In this excellent essay, non-binary writer, author, and activist Aaron Kappel describes a tale of two rapes — one in which they were assaulted and fought back as an example of the "right" kind of rape, and the other about the realization that their ex had raped them multiple times throughout their relationship, even though they didn't necessarily say "no" in the moment. This essay is important for so many reasons: it documents the experiences of a queer and trans rape survivor who isn't a woman, and tells about the importance of the imperfect victim narrative, in which they didn't say no and were in a relationship with their rapist.
Rape, we’re told, is not about sex; it’s about power. That power reveals itself through force, force that is visibly apparent and physical. But that same power, that same force, can also be unseen, coercive, psychological. The story about this invisible power is the story we don’t expect to hear.
Through their discussion of these two seemingly opposing narratives, Kappel reveals a kernel of truth: that rape can be insidious, unseen, inside our minds, just as easily as it can happen drunkenly behind a dumpster.
"Smile Sweetly, Don't Shout" by Reina Gattuso
In an essay written in response to the Turner case, writer Reina Gattuso opens her article by saying she sent a "strongly-worded text message" to her rapist following the fallout from the Stanford rape trial controversy. Sending this message, she said, caused a ton of anxiety due in large part to the fear of being impolite and showing her emotions publicly. She goes into a scathing indictment of the culture that requires even victims to be polite about their trauma, to be quiet and center the needs and feelings of those who violated them over their own pain. The Stanford rape survivor's statement, she countered, is an important divergence from this norm, one powerful enough to compel Gattuso to confront her own rapist.
This speech shatters the banishing of women’s pain to a mere ghost in the archive — a thing to be read from its absence in the records and on the news — as her declamation takes front and center stage. It is a brilliant speech, the kind so many women have fantasized about making, an antidote to the guilt that we are taught to feel in demanding our due.
"UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Am a Rape Victim, Not a Survivor," Writer Anonymous
This anonymously-written essay details the anger of someone who experienced sexual assault and feels the "strong survivor" narrative places the impetus on those who are raped to deal with it and "move on" rather than on rapists who shouldn't have raped in the first place. This person's story is an incredibly important in light of the statement of the Stanford rape victim, as it's important to place the entire blame on Turner rather than force those traumatized like this writer and the Stanford rape victim to move on. More than anything else, the writer of this essay drives home the idea that the discourse about rape needs to envision a world in which the accountability process for rapists is more important than congratulating people who are raped for dealing with something they never should have had to deal with at all.
There is nothing that benefits rape culture and patriarchy more than a rape victim/survivor who moves on and gets productive. All of this is to say, please just let rape victims/survivors process and identify our shit in our own way. When you're talking or writing about rape and abuse, be careful with your language. The subject demands care, and that means thinking about the implications of everything you say.
It's beyond unfortunate that even in 2016, hearing the words of rape and assault victims in their own words is rare. Stories like these need to be uplifted, put on every front page, taught in classrooms and living rooms, so maybe one day our country can turn the tide of the harrowing rape epidemic that keeps breaking the bodies and spirits of so many.