Media practitioners reflect on how we talk about rape in wake of Stanford case
Screengrab from NowThis “She is someone” video.
It’s been almost a month since the victim-impact statement of the 23-year-old woman raped on the Stanford campus was released by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office. After its release, the statement went viral and the case sparked national outrage. The statement has been shared on Buzzfeed, read live by CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, broadcast live on Mayor de Blasio’s Facebook page, and it inspired the cast of “Girls” to release a powerful message about sexual assault.
Since the release of the letter, the Internet has lit up with meaningful responses and thoughtful narratives about how we talk about sexual assault and rape in America. We’ve put together a list of thoughtful reads that show how media practitioners have responded to the statement and the Stanford rape case.
“Rape survivors shouldn’t have to be eloquent to get justice”: The Stanford survivor’s statement to her attacker was intelligent, heartfelt and eloquent. And, it has been shared broadly by millions on social media. This opinion piece written by Melissa Batchelor Warnke for the Los Angeles Times points out that victim statements aren’t always eloquent, and they rarely go viral. “In the United States, a person is raped every two minutes,” Warnke writes. “ … There are thousands upon thousands of men and women who have written such impact statements. So why was it this statement that animated the country’s attention? Why was this the one that has been read more than 13 million times (at last count)?”
Warnke uses Rebecca Makkai’s New Yorker article about her own experience presenting a survivor statement to the court. When she wrote her own “victim-impact statement,” Makkai was a 16-year-old who had been raped multiple times throughout her childhood. Makkai’s words were scrutinized in the courtroom and she was accused of plagiarism by the defense attorney in her case.
While the Stanford survivor’s letter was well written and well received, victims of rape and sexual assault should not have to be good writers in order to be heard. “When we are moved to action only by language that seizes us, we tip the scales of justice in favor of the articulate and place an undue burden on survivors — the burden not only to communicate their trauma, but to do so exhaustively, lucidly, compellingly,” Warnke writes. “Those who are at a different point in their recovery or less gifted with language deserve the same response.”
“I was never raped, but when I was 11, the son of a family friend copped a feel whenever we were playing video games or watching tv.” This is the opening line to Kim Saumell’s personal essay published on the Athena Talks Medium page. The essay examines the language used to talk about rape and sexual assault. On a deeper level, Saumell shares vignettes that show the fear and sadness of living in a culture of rape.
Saumell strings together a series of humiliating, painful and uncomfortable situations she has faced as a woman throughout her lifetime. “I was never raped, but I’m always, always thinking about consequences. Not the consequences of my own actions or decisions, but the consequences of someone else’s,” Saumell writes. “The consequences that might arise because someone else might decide that what I’m wearing or how drunk I am or who I’m with will somehow serve as permission or opportunity.”
“What happens when people stop talking about the Stanford rape case?”: “Sexual violence is sickeningly commonplace. In the United States, federal data suggests a new sexual assault occurs every two minutes,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in this Atlantic article. After Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and put on probation, there has been a public outcry from internet users. But public outcry, as LaFrance highlights, can only go so far. National conversations also tend to be short-lived and short-sighted. “On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, any attempts at civil discourse, especially about matters as charged as rape, tend to quickly unravel,” LaFrance writes. “The tenor of national conversations, even among those who agree with one another, often crescendo to fever pitch—and not necessarily productively.”
Some progress has been made. Since the hearing, there has been an effort to recall Judge Aaron Persky, who was recently removed from serving on another sexual assault case. While the tidal wave of social media may help move change forward, what will happen after the buzz of the Stanford case dies down? “Real change comes down to reaching not just the most people, but the right people,” LaFrance writes.
These are a few examples of stories and media that reflect on how we perceive, listen, and sometimes fail to hear the voices of victims of rape and sexual assault. One viral statement led to domino effect of stories that dig deep into the language used to talk of and around sexual violence. Many more stories will continue to emerge and add to the conversation, which seems to be getting stronger every day.
Related: How writers can help remove labels that overshadow trauma of sexual abuse | Meet Christa Hillstrom, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and journalist learning about recovery from a joint-lock ninja in Fargo | Three media projects show the value of reporting on topics long-term | How traumatic stories are affecting media practitioners