The latest young women to inspire a national conversation about issues of sexual assault is named Jackie.
That’s the woman at the center of a recent Rolling Stone article that has sparked a huge controversy about the way that the University of Virginia handles rape cases. In that piece, Jackie recounts being gang-raped at a frat party and struggling to get the UVA administration to crack down on the fraternity in question. And, while many of the names in the article were changed, Jackie’s wasn’t.
The reporter who wrote the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, confirmed to multiple outlets that Jackie is her source’s real name. According to Erdely, Jackie had simply never been asked to share her story with a reporter before, and now “really feels good about having spoken out.”
“This was a very difficult for her to speak out, because she was really criticized for it by her peers and very much discouraged for it,” Erdely said in an interview with PBS. “So, the fact that she had this incredible bravery I think really says something about how strongly she feels about getting her story out and the stories of others out.”
Sexual violence prevention advocates agree that people like Jackie can have a positive impact on other people who have experienced assault and abuse. Their voices can help challenge the stigma associated with rape, and ultimately embolden other survivors to feel comfortable coming forward.
“The stories told by survivors who go public can provide solace to other survivors. With each new story, there are countless others who can relate to these experiences and feel less alone or less ashamed,” Marybeth Seitz-Brown, the communications coordinator at Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress via email. “More survivors going public also helps to debunk myths about rape and how it happens, and it shows the public just how many people this issue affects.”
Over the past several years, there have been an increasing number of women like Jackie who are insisting on using their real names to tell their stories.
For instance, there’s Daisy Coleman, who says she was raped by a high school football player in the small town of Maryville, Missouri, when she was just 14 years old. Last year, Daisy recounted her assault — and the subsequent bullying she experienced in her community — first to the Kansas City Star, and then to the cable TV networks. She repeatedly explained that she decided to go public because she wanted to reclaim her power.
“That one night took it all away from me. I’m nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer,” Daisy wrote in a first person essay published on xoJane last fall. “This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up.”
There’s also 16-year-old Jada, whose rape went viral on social media this summer as her classmates mocked photos of her unconscious body with the hashtag #jadapose. In response, the high schooler sat down with TV camera crews to urge people to use a different hashtag, #IAmJada, to help her get her name back. She said that she wanted to change the conversation. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body,” she said, “but that’s not what I am and who I am.”
Meanwhile, on college campuses, dozens of students are stepping into the spotlight to file Title IX complaints against their universities for mishandling their rape cases. In their formal complaints, many of them recount their experiences in excruciating detail. We know their names, too. Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student whose senior thesis project involves carrying her dorm mattress around with her everywhere as long as her rapist remains on campus, has arguably become the public face of a movement.
Advocates agree that this represents somewhat of a shift in this area. Particularly with the current push for better sexual assault policies on college campuses, a movement that has gained significant momentum over the past several years, there are more people willing to take a potential risk and identify themselves as someone who has been raped.
“There didn’t used to be people putting their personal experiences on the line, their faces, their names,” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a friend and classmate of Emma’s and one of the students who helped organize a national day of action around her mattress project, told ThinkProgress in an interview earlier this fall. She pointed out that social media now makes it easier to spread these stories, as well as gives survivors more tools to connect with and support each other.
“We’re seeing that, over time, as more and more people talk about it, the stigmas are slowly being shed,” Tracy Cox, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told ThinkProgress. “People are feeling safe, they’re feeling supported, and they’re not feeling like they’re alone anymore. They’re thinking, I can talk about this and people will believe me, people will support me.”
Identifying rape survivors remains somewhat controversial in the journalism world. The media has a longstanding practice of withholding victims’ names to protect their privacy. In stories about Jackie, Daisy, and Jada, outlets typically noted that they made an exception to that editorial policy because the young women wanted to go public. But some media ethicists raise concerns about whether it’s really responsible to identify vulnerable minors who may not be aware of all of the repercussions of linking their name with that crime.
“I would hope the media would be circling back and checking out what has happened to these survivors years later,” Edward Wasserman, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and an expert in media ethics, told ThinkProgress. He expressed concern about cyberbullying. “I would not want this new process [of identifying survivors] to become calcified as standard operating practice without checking to ensure there’s no added harm.”
On the other hand, according to Wasserman, there are also some benefits to moving away from the media’s standard practice for rape victims. The current policy presumes that survivors wouldn’t ever want to be identified — implicitly communicating that society will see them as damaged goods and their reputations will never recover. Wasserman noted that attempt to shield survivors can come across as paternalistic. Activists argue this attitude ultimately increases the stigma around sexual violence, and makes it harder to humanize survivors as real people with credible stories.
“I think this helps the public also see the victims’ side of it,” Cox said. “We’ve seen a lot of things changing, in part, because I think this issue is being handled in responsible and sensitive ways by members of the media. So you have survivors watching the news and seeing how a case unfolds — and if it’s done well, and if they feel secure and safe, then they might be more prone to speak up and use their name.”
But society obviously hasn’t changed its approach to this issue overnight. There are still some very real risks that can accompany the decision to speak openly about a sexual assault. Survivors may be worried about how coming forward will affect their lives, their loved ones, and even their employment. Victim blaming remains incredibly common, and survivors’ credibility is typically constantly called into question. This week, for example, critics are casting doubt on the story that Jackie told to Rolling Stone.
Sexual violence prevention experts like Cox and Seitz-Brown emphasize that there shouldn’t be any expectations about every single victim coming forward to identify themselves. It’s important to respect each individual person’s decisions in this area, and no one should be compelled to speak publicly if they don’t want to do so. But, on the other hand, they say that no survivor’s name should be censored if they want it to be printed.
“It’s crucial that the media respect survivors’ wishes when telling their stories. Feeling in control of one’s narrative and how it is told is so important for many survivors,” Seitz-Brown said.