TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault and victim-blaming.
I won’t rehash the horrific, digitally documented rape of a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH by multiple young men while other teenagers laughed or shared photos and video of the assault with their friends. I’m taking a cue from Jaclyn Friedman and not using the word “alleged” here because, as she puts it, “there’s video [evidence] and this column is not a court of law.” If you don’t know the case’s background, you can find decent breakdowns here, here, or a million other places on the internet.
Here, I don’t want to tell the story of what happened in Steubenville and the trial taking place as I write this, whose verdict is expected mere days from now. I want to tell the anonymous survivor, whom the media has dubbed Jane Doe, what an incredibly strong and admirable young woman she is.
Going public about a sexual assault (to your family, your friends, your community) is incredibly difficult, particularly if you share mutual acquaintances with your assailant(s). When no physical proof exists (and even when it does), the overwhelming tendency of bystanders is to “not get in the middle of it,” which typically means at least tacitly siding with the accused – in other words, acting as though nothing happened. All too often, people the survivor knows and trusts find ways to assign blame to them and not the accused. You were drunk. What were you wearing? You were flirting with him all night. He’s pretty popular – are you sure you’re not just looking for attention?
Victim-blaming isn’t restricted to people who know both the accused and the accuser. While incapacitated by alcohol at a bar as a university student, I was dragged away, driven home and carried through my apartment door by a sober and opportunistic stranger. I woke up to find this unfamiliar person in my bed, and learned he had had sex with me without a condom while I was incapable of speaking or walking. When I told my roommates what had happened later the next day, they cast suspicious looks in my direction, pointed out how unbelievably wasted I was (as if that didn’t merely prove that what happened was rape), and chided me for “bringing home” a dirty-looking man that nobody knew. A month later they kicked me out of the apartment.
I recently shared this story on Twitter in the wake of a torrent of victim-blaming after former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson alleged Toronto mayor Rob Ford sexually harassed and assaulted her at a party. At least seven followers then shared their own stories of being blamed for their assaults by their friends, their teachers, their own mothers. If this is what we face when we speak up about our assaults to our loved ones, imagine what happens when a survivor reports their assault to the police.
I want to preface this next part by saying that no survivor of sexual assault is in any way obligated to report their assault to the police, nor does the decision not to report render the survivor a weaker human being. It takes an inordinate amount of strength to survive at all. Survivors of sexual assault owe exactly nothing to the community or to other potential victims, and there are a great many reasons why people do not report. One doesn’t have to look very far to see cases of re-victimization upon reporting, including dismissal or callous disrespect from law enforcement, expulsion from school, being arrested themselves (!!!), and (I shit you not) being straight-up raped again by police officers. The legal system is not a friendly place for sexual assault survivors, and going that route takes a toll even on those who encounter the most benevolent officers.
I don’t know much of anything about Steubenville’s 16-year-old Jane Doe, and that’s as it should be. Nobody deserves privacy more than she, after enduring the violation she has. But I would very much like to shake her hand. I’m overwhelmed by how bravely she is facing, at such a young age, the brutal reality of how communities, the media, and law enforcement treat sexual assault cases. I hope that as she testifies in the courtroom, she feels my and others’ solidarity and rage on her behalf. I hope she has many arms to hug her and ears to listen to her and anything else she needs to find strength and peace in the aftermath. I hope she knows how many survivors she has touched and inspired by coming forward. And while I dearly hope she isn’t crushed by the weight of the discourse surrounding her case, I hope someday she can find solace in knowing that she pushed that discourse forward.