On the one day a week that I'm allowed to sleep past noon, I woke before dawn to a flurry of Facebook shares of one victim's soul-rattling letter to her attacker. With one eye closed, I squinted at my bright cell-phone screen as I read the opening line, "You don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that's why we're here today," and immediately dove into one of the darkest places I think I've been in a while.
The victim of the Stanford attack wrote almost 8,000 words pouring out all of her emotions, from rage to fear to hatred, to depression and anxiety, which she read to her attacker, Brock Turner, in court. I say his name and not his accolades because I feel that once you're a rapist, a person who now has to spend his life as a sexual offender, a person who has assaulted someone, you are not allowed to shrug it off as something that just happened. A victim can't remove the pain and the trauma, nor the emotional damage that now resides within them like a black void that consumes them every waking moment.
So why should the person who put them there be allowed to continue living as though they have done no wrong?
I lay in bed, reading her letter to Turner, and felt the tears streaming down my face into my ears as she recounted, in chilling detail, all that she can remember from that night and what happened after two graduate students caught him on top of her unconscious body behind a dumpster. Reading her letter, I felt a chasm forming in my chest, enough for me to put my phone down and remind myself to breathe. I hadn't realized I'd been holding my breath until my lungs began to scream at me for air.
I sat in the first rays of dawn and felt so much for this woman that I don't know, this woman who only went to a party to spend time with her sister, a woman who just happened to drink maybe a little too much alcohol, a woman who didn't know that a young freshman was preying on her, a woman who had to stand in front of a man she did not know and prove to the judge, a prosecutor, her assailant's family and the world that he is a rapist.
It's painful and disheartening to know that there are people out there who are ready and willing to vilify her, to use her actions to discredit her, to make her own body a weapon against her.
There are people who will say that he's just a kid. She was drinking too much. She asked for it. Even the judge, in delivering Turner's sentence, pointed out that a harsher sentence would "have a severe impact on him." His own father, Dan, wrote his own letter and said that "That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."
Turner could have served up to 14 years for his crime, but instead, he will only spend six months behind bars and get three years of probation. He gets six months for sexual assault, when this young woman will be affected for the rest of her life.
There's a whole subset of people who believe that they're morally right, but completely condone what he did or what other people have done. There are people out there who are rapists but don't think that they are because people have told them that it's OK, that if she drank too much you can do what you want to her. That if she said yes once that means yes every time. That if you're married, your spouse owes you this, and you are free to take it. There are people who allow rapists and abusers to use our bodies because they feel like it's not a big deal if he repents or feels real bad about it. There are even people who support women who have been sexually assaulted or abused but completely disregard men who are victims too. These people, these ignorant, vomit-inducing sympathizers are one of the reasons victims don't speak up about their assault and abuse, myself included.
I know what it's like to not be able to share these horrible things that were done to me, to feel utterly worthless and used. I've long gotten over the feeling of wanting to shed my skin and throw away my body, and I commend this young woman for looking her rapist in the face and telling him all of these things that many victims aren't able to.
As a young woman, I'm always aware that in any given day, my humanity can be stripped away by someone seeking to hurt me. I'm careful about the people that I allow in my personal space, but even then, that's not enough if rapists aren't held to stricter punishments and admonished collectively by society. Small things such as crude jokes and these exclusionary rules that say what does and doesn't count as rape or assault feed into rape culture.
It took me almost being a senior in college to learn that if you feel violated in any way, then what happened was more than likely not OK. I've sat on the floor of my dorm room, more broken than I'd ever felt, with my best friend and college roommate as she prayed over me, and I've heard her story of being physically and verbally abused by her own high-school boyfriend. She experienced severe anxiety because of it.
I know too many instances of women being abused and assaulted and feeling like the system has thrown them to the side and silenced them. I've seen what happens when privilege buys you a way out (see Bill Cosby) for years, and these things feel like an attack on a person's humanity, like someone saying "Oh, we recognize that you feel upset about what this person did to you, but it's really not that big of a deal. Are you sure you aren't just making this up? Well, why did this person think it was OK for them to do this—what were you wearing; were you drinking?"
The system has to be harder on those who use our bodies for their consumption to feel powerful. There must be stricter laws for sexual assault, and we must be willing to have conversations about rape, no matter how uncomfortable and painful they may be. And we must stand with victims, offer them support and tell them that we believe them. Too many people out there don't, perpetuating a culture of violence without consequences and victims without justice.
Deputy News Editor Maya Miller is a Jackson State University graduate who writes about juvenile justice, mental health and people. Email her story ideas at [email protected].