The Stanford Rape Victim Controlled The Public Narrative Without Giving Up Her Privacy

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

By now you likely know the story of the Stanford rape survivor. You know it because you heard it from her: Her 7,200-word victim impact statement, which she read aloud in court to her attacker, former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, has been published many times over: first on Palo Alto Online, then on Buzzfeed and by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. The Buzzfeed post has generated record traffic for the site, getting more than 11 million views in just four days. On CNN, Ashleigh Banfield read the letter in its entirety on air.

The Stanford victim has corroborators for her story — the two Swedish bikers who found her, caught Turner when he tried to run away, and restrained him until the police arrived have spoken to reporters — but the words that are moving the masses by the millions are hers, and hers alone.

And she is still anonymous. She could be sitting next to you at a Starbucks right now and you would have no idea. The 23-year-old college graduate is known only as Emily Doe. It is an astonishing feat: To remain a private individual while controlling a public narrative.

In an effort to scrub the stigma from still-taboo subjects, activists celebrate those who come forward in the name of progress. Silence contributes to stasis; it is speaking out that shifts the status quo. The ultimate in speaking out is a kind of coming out, in which an individual publicly connects her name and a face to a previously nameless, faceless issue. This is especially true for women, who have long been more likely to endure the types of experiences society has deemed too inappropriate or uncomfortable to openly discuss.

Think of Ms Magazine’s iconic “We Have Had Abortions” petition, signed by the likes of Nora Ephron and Gloria Steinem and published in 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade. Think of Betty Ford telling the country about her breast cancer diagnosis in 1974, sparking a public dialogue about a rarely-acknowledged disease. Think of the stunning New York Magazine cover featuring the faces of 35 Bill Cosby accusers, and the pages within that issue in which each woman told her story with her name, face, and age attached. The number of women publicly accusing Cosby of sexual assault has since risen to nearly 60.

Think of campaigns like #SayHerName, which demand the media and the public not exclude black women from broader coverage of police brutality, and #ShoutYourAbortion, which encourages women who kept their abortions secret to unapologetically announce them on Twitter. The former was created by the African American Policy Forum in February 2015, the same month that Natasha McKenna died in police custody and just months before the deaths of Mya Hall, Alexia Christian, Meagan Hockaday, and Sandra Bland; the latter went viral as Congress debated cutting off its funding to Planned Parenthood.

So there is power in telling the world your name and showing the world your face. If you are a rape survivor and you want to be seen, you can be.

If your community blames you for for being raped because your rapist is a football player, as happened to then-14-year-old Daisy Coleman, you can write a first-person essay about your assault and give interviews to cable TV networks. Coleman wrote that she went public to “refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer. This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up.”

If an image of your rape goes viral against your will, as in the case of then-16-year-old Jada, you can choose to take the gasoline someone poured all over your life and use it as fuel. During an interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC, Jada introduced a new photo of herself: In it, her fist is raised and she is holding a sign that read #IAmJada. The hashtag, she later said, “is helping me get my name back.”

If you are willing to attach your name and your face to your assault, you can turn your identity into a rallying cry. If you want to. If.

But what if you don’t?

What if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your public identity on the altar of a terrible thing someone else did to you? What if you don’t want to be a hashtag? What if you would prefer that your top Google result be a link to your professional achievements or your Tumblr of memes and taco recipes and not dozens of articles about your sexual assault? What if what you really want, in the normalcy-shattering aftermath of rape, is the closest thing to a normal life?

There are so many valid reasons why rape victims have the right to privacy and anonymity and why victims often choose to exercise it. Publicly coming out as a rape victim can mean inciting a barrage of backlash and harassment, even rape and death threats. To identify as a rape victim — not to mention one who is willing to name the rapist — involves significant risk, a very real possibility of compromising personal safety and mental health.

In the understandable rush to celebrate victims courageous enough to come forward, we may have inadvertently conflated secrecy with shame. Is the only way to prove you’re not ashamed of being a rape victim to advertise that you are? What does the acclaim for rape victims who want to be seen say about rape victims who don’t? Is bravery so binary?

The Stanford rape survivor kicked in door number three. She didn’t give her name or her face. But she gave her voice.

On Wednesday, through her prosecutor, she gave a statement to KTVU explaining why she wants to retain her anonymity. Even women you don’t know, she said, deserve respect. And in keeping private what is specific about her identity, she can represent “every woman”:

I remain anonymous, yes to protect my identity. But it is also a statement, that all of these people are fighting for someone they don’t know. That’s the beauty of it. I don’t need labels, categories, to prove I am worthy of respect, to prove that I should be listened to. I am coming out to you as simply a woman wanting to be heard. Yes there is plenty more I’d like to tell you about me. For now, I am every woman.

Her letter, striking in its eloquence, insight, and clarity of purpose, has had an immeasurable impact on the public perception of her case. A “severe impact,” you could say.

When someone hears about the six-month slap-on-the-wrist sentence given to Turner and decides to join the ongoing efforts to have the judge who tried this case repealed, it is likely the victim’s version of events that they remember and believe. She produced what Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen described as “the most eloquent, powerful and compelling piece of victim advocacy that I’ve seen in my 20 years as a prosecutor.”

She isn’t “going public” in the traditional, total way. But what unites her with sexual assault survivors who do is a refusal to let anyone else — an assailant, an assailant’s friends and family, an under-informed public — dictate the terms of her story.

In her statement, she writes about how she was “pummeled” with questions on the stand by Turner’s lawyer. She relates a litany of them, ending with: “Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan? Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.”

No, actually. We won’t.