Writing to Change the Culture: A Woman’s Letter to the Freshman who Assaulted Her
Warning: This post discusses a sexual assault.
Here's a story about a heinous sexual assault against a 22 year old woman. We'll call her Sarah--a pseudonym. It's also about her superpower: writing.
On Friday at midnight, I read a letter Sarah composed and read at the sentencing of her attacker, a Stanford freshman who was unanimously convicted of 3 felony sexual assault charges. Although he could have been locked away for 14 years, the judge sentenced him to only six months in county jail because of the "severe impact" of losing his swimming scholarship.
Sarah's letter to Brock (not a pseudonym) begins...
"Your Honor, if it is all right, for the majority of this statement I would like to address the defendant directly. You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today."
Although the letter takes about 40 minutes to read, half a million people saw it Friday night, 2.6 million by Saturday night, and 4.1 million by Sunday evening. I suspect that her epistolary will be a transformational text--a text deliberately crafted to change the way our judicial system re-traumatizes victims of sexual assault.
Defense Attorney's Questions:
"Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating?"
Paragraph after paragraph, Sarah's letter methodically explains what the attacker refused to acknowledge: only liars could mistake consensual sex for rape.
"Brock stated, 'At no time did I see that she was not responding. If at any time I thought she was not responding, I would have stopped immediately.' Here’s the thing; if your plan was to stop only when I became unresponsive, then you still do not understand. You didn’t even stop when I was unconscious anyway! Someone else stopped you. Two guys on bikes noticed I wasn’t moving in the dark and had to tackle you. How did you not notice while on top of me?"
During the trial, Brock mournfully stated, "I learned that drinking can ruin a life." His father, in a disturbing written statement, laments how his son has suffered. In fact, Brock ruined two lives, Sarah reminds them:
"I can’t sleep alone at night without having a light on, like a five year old, because I have nightmares of being touched where I cannot wake up. I did this thing where I waited until the sun came up and I felt safe enough to sleep. For three months, I went to bed at six o’clock in the morning."
Sarah's Prose Obliterates TV's Lurid Rape/Murder Optics
With precision, Sarah deconstructs the evil sex-magic myth in which men are helpless to confront women's girls gone wild sexuality. Those tropes are destroyed because of Sarah's multidimensional voice--a product of well-crafted syntax and vocabulary. Her voice is so resonant, the reader is unable to view her as some standard issue TV show victim because every sentence reveals her as a...
- goofy dancer
- selfless daughter
- stalwart sister
- dutiful employee
- quirky girlfriend
- and razor-sharp intellectual
Contrast this with "Law & Order's" lurid rape/murder victim optics where too many episodes feature waxy supermodels decorated in blood.
She Defined the Trauma--Not the Other Way Around
I've read Sarah's letter four times, marveling at how the writer retains her innate sense of humor, which in this horror-show context is a sharp rhetorical poleaxe. Here's how she responded to a newspaper publishing her attacker's swimming statistics:
"And then, at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming. Throw in my mile time if that’s what we’re doing. I’m good at cooking; put that in there. I think the end is where you list your extracurriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened."
By the end of the piece, her voice, her intelligence, and her compassion transcends the abhorrent act. Though Brock does not deserve generosity, she even holds out hope for her attacker's future.
Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story. The world is huge, it is so much bigger than Palo Alto and Stanford, and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy. But right now, you do not get to shrug your shoulders and be confused anymore.
The trauma experienced might be part of her, but she has defined it--not the other way around.
To this CisGender Male, it's Personal
Although my gender allows only a limited perspective on this topic, the crime against Sarah is personal to me.
For whatever reason, more young women than young men enroll in the English education program where I teach. Over the last three years, 9 students have indicated (either directly or indirectly) that they were sexually assaulted--all by boyfriends or "close" friends. Because I teach writing methods, students avail their personal narratives to me--even though I tell them, "Look, I'm not a psychotherapist. If you write about horrors in your life, I'll recommend one." The impact of such trauma is cutting, not being able to get out of bed for weeks at a time, and PTSD. The later interrupts their ability to communicate during high stress situations--like their internships.
Despite the strain and terror of overcoming their attacks, they push themselves academically in order to make a difference in the lives of their future students and families. The least we could do is protect them.
Every year in the U.S., there are 293,0066 victims of sexual assault on average--most occurring during the summer. Since 47% of rapists are "known" by their victims, we have to do a better job of communicating to females and males--especially males--what is okay and what's not.
It's no Suprise to Anyone: Male Misogynist Discourse is a Thing
I've heard the argument that rape should not be discussed in the context of sex because rape is an act of violence. However, rape is sexual violence which is commonly present in male discourse ("Did you hit that?" or "I tore that up."). As a result, the developing brains of young men marinate in misogynistic language.
Male and females experiment with gender performance and sex talk at school. It's just not mediated enough by adults. One of the ways that we can change our culture for the better is by having more conversations about sex with youths that involve an adult perspective. If we don't have those conversations, then too many boys and men will have their views of sex skewed by pornography and dumb guy talk.
Because sex is complicated, teens need an unflinching and nuanced view of the subject. Scarleteen is a good place to start.
Furthermore high school and college students should be made aware that help is a phone call away. The number for the Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673) should be posted on every classroom wall. Post it in Spanish, also: La Línea Nacional de Abuso Sexual.
Every high school and college student should read Sarah's piece to understand the abhorrent way some boys and men treat girls and women. Boys should read it so they learn how to be good guys, like the two Swedish bicyclists who interrupted the rape. One tended to the victim while the other tackled the assailant as he tried to flee. When the police arrived, they noted that one of the Swedes was sobbing so hard at what he'd witnessed that he couldn't speak. Later Sarah taped a hand drawn picture of two bicycles to the ceiling over her bed to remind herself that her story has heroes and that "we are looking out for one another."