In April, I had the opportunity to act in a play that retold the stories of high-profile sexual assault cases. My role was the sister of Emily Doe, the woman we now know as Chanel Miller.
For too long, the spotlight has always been on the perpetrators, but the script placed a spotlight on the victims. A key theme of the play was the way in which journalists dehumanize victims. Some of this can be attributed to the condition of anonymity, but much of it is about the relative lack of information stated about victims in comparison to the wealth of details we are given about the accused.
In the Brock Turner case, and many others, there was a heavy emphasis on the impact the allegation would have on the accused. His father wrote a letter detailing the changes he noticed in his son as a result of the trial, and the infamously lenient sentence handed down by former Judge Aaron Persky was ‘justified’ by his belief that prison would have a “severe impact” on Brock.
Nicole Bedera, a sociology Ph.D. candidate, is currently writing her dissertation on the effects of rape allegations on the lives of the accused. She revealed on Twitter that one rapist in her research actually received more sympathy from his university and even women because of the allegations against him.
Many of us would know Brock Turner’s wide blue-eyed stare captured in his mugshot anywhere. Criminals get their stories told over and over and over — one look at the serial killer documentaries section of Netflix will tell you that. But victims like Chanel have to write their own. Thanks to her memoir that was released last week, we now know her as not just a victim, but as a talented writer and artist. During the trial, we knew she was a brilliant writer from her viral victim impact statement, but we didn’t know much else.
While she was asked numerous deeply personal questions about herself while in court, they were used as weapons against her, attempts to place the blame on her, rather than to humanize her.
We are so quick to forgive and explain away crimes and just as quick to find arbitrary reasons as to why the victims deserved what happened to them.
Victim-blaming can be attributed to the psychological concept of the just-world hypothesis. If we can find a reason why something bad happened to someone, we can hypothetically avoid suffering the same fate. If alcohol is to blame for sexual assault, we can tell ourselves that we won’t be raped if we watch how much we drink. This thinking gives us an illusion of safety and control. We want to believe that all unfortunate events are justified.
So the more we dehumanize victims like Chanel and write them off as careless heavy drinkers, the better we feel about our own safety. If we choose to see Chanel as someone we can all relate to, we start to think: “What happened to her can happen to anyone.” And that terrifies us.
The only way forward is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable reality of rape. It can happen to anyone. It isn’t caused by alcohol. It can’t be chalked up to simple misunderstandings. It is time to stop explaining it away in order to make ourselves feel safer.
Let’s hold rapists accountable, and elevate the voices of victims. Let’s stop talking about the perpetrators and start looking at how rape ruins the lives of victims. It is going to be uncomfortable, and it may make us feel a little less safe.
It starts with reading Chanel Miller’ memoir Know My Name, in which she humanizes herself in the way that the justice system and media never did.
May her voice and the voices of all victims drown out those of perpetrators.