It's been a jarring year in the higher education community with prominent sexual assault allegations and rape cases among students making headlines. Stanford University is the latest institution to come under intense scrutiny in recent days after a rape victim's letter to her rapist went viral online. In March, Brock Allen Turner, a 20-year-old former Stanford University student and member of the swim team, was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault against an unidentified 23-year-old woman known only as "Emily Doe." That she remains anonymous is important and is why the Stanford rape victim's identity won't be revealed.
The case has sparked outrage at the judge who handed down Turner's sentence on June 2. Doe recounted aloud her terrifying experience being raped by Turner in a victim's statement in court, and there were two eyewitnesses who saw Turner assaulting her while she was passed out— and yet Turner only received a six-month prison sentence for three felony counts of sexual assault. Her powerful 7,000-plus word letter to her rapist was published Sunday on BuzzFeed and has become a viral sensation in the days following. As with other high-profile college rape cases, national discussion has turned to the concept of rape culture and the expectations and roles of men and women across our nation's college campuses.
Victims of rape who report their assaults can choose to reveal their identities or remain anonymous if a case goes to trial; if the victim is a minor, their identity is almost never revealed. In the Stanford rape case, Doe has chosen to remain anonymous — and let's be real crystal clear about this: It's OK that a rape victim chooses to remain anonymous. Additionally, it's the policy of most newspapers and sites to not name survivors for safety reasons, unless the survivor chooses to name themselves. And there's a case to be made about why the choice to remain anonymous as a rape victim is valid and more importantly, protected. Jessica Valenti wrote for The Guardian in 2015, stating:
Rather than ensuring a more full picture of sexual assault, mandating named rape survivors in the media will mean a skewed understanding of the breadth of sexual violence and a much more narrow picture of what rape really looks like.
Valenti went on to note that most rape survivors who do go public are those with reliable, established support systems and "whose reputations and private lives can withstand very public and hostile scrutiny."
As much as a rape victim revealing his or her identity can humanize and make the experience and trauma of rape more real to the general population, there is power in anonymity, too. It's not an act of cowardice — for some, it's about survival. One of the greatest fears of rape victims — and threats to reporting rapes and sexual assaults — is the sad truth that many rape victims worry no one will believe them.
If the victim isn't being outright blamed for what happened to him or her, there are those who believe they're just making it all up. Yes, sometimes it does happen — case in point: The Rolling Stone UVA rape story retraction in 2015. And when it does happen, it makes the news, further perpetuating this false notion that rape victims are mostly liars.
Consider for a moment perhaps one of the most graphic and disturbing passages from Doe's victim statement:
This was how I learned what happened to me, sitting at my desk reading the news at work. I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. That’s when the pine needles in my hair made sense, they didn’t fall from a tree. He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me, this can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this online. I kept reading. In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that according to him, I liked it. I liked it. Again, I do not have words for these feelings.
Who would make something like this up? What's the end game there — public embarrassment, humiliation, or a "gotcha" moment on the media? Rape and sexual assault are criminal acts that wound a person's own sense of self, control, and body autonomy like no other act: Rape is a primal offense to human dignity.
Doe's statement is no less powerful — no less real — by not having her actual name attached to her it. It is brave when someone can speak publicly about being raped. Braver still is telling anyone at all.