Written by an NYU Law Student
Last week Brock Turner was released from prison after serving three months of a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. I cried. I cried because after I was sexually assaulted in college, it took me over a year to want to be alive again. It took me over a year before I stopped having panic attacks in public. It took me over a year before I could touch my body or let someone else touch it without cringing. I cried for the part of my soul that is angry and wants more punishment. I cried because, while I want that for the victim in his case, I did not want that when it was me.
When it was me, I thought long and hard about whether or not to report it in the first place. I was concerned that my assailant would be punished because he was ignorant about consent. I did not want to ruin his life. I reported what happened to the college only after attempting to talk to my assailant about what happened and hearing him laugh while saying, “You only remember that because you liked it.” I brought forth my claims because his cavalier attitude scared me and I wanted to make sure that it did not happen to anyone else.
I was given a staff member to support me but no one to advocate on my behalf. No one mentioned the possibility of filing criminal charges. The person assigned to support me through the process, as a result of her lack of cultural competence, told me that it was unlikely that my assailant would tell others about my claims. She did not realize that he was from a community where people are regularly incarcerated and it did not occur to her that he would tell everyone as a way to rally support and preemptively undermine my claims. It did not occur to her that, although we are both people of color, he might bring up the long history of false accusations of sexual assault against black men in this country. It was the first thing he said. I was ill-prepared to bring up the long history of women, especially women of color, being sexually assaulted without consequence to their assailants.
Through my experiences in law school, I now know that reporting these events to the police would have been a very different process, but one that is also problematic. For instance, it is possible, even likely, that the police would have dismissed my claims because I am a woman of color. It is possible that they would have blamed me for drinking and being at a party. After all, my own parents chastised me for not taking enough precautions to prevent the assault.
I also know that if I had reported the events to the police that, because of my privileges, my accusations could have been taken seriously. I was a college student and am cisgender, heterosexual, had no mental health history, and came from a stable home. And if the police had taken my account seriously, I now know that my assailant would have probably pled guilty rather than risk a longer sentence at trial because he likely would not have been able to afford to a hire a lawyer.
Today, I work hard against that type of coerciveness in our criminal justice system. I hate the part of me that would feel vindicated by hearing him take responsibility and I know that I would have felt guilty if he had been incarcerated. I wanted some way to assure that he never did that to anyone again, but our current systems do not offer much to rehabilitate sexual assault perpetrators. It is also not designed for what the victim would want, even if it is less retributive than what the system would dole out.
In my first-year criminal law class, when we discussed the subject of rape, the person sitting next to me told me that he could not believe the numbers were as high as the professor stated. My classmate told me that he did not personally know anyone who had been sexually assaulted. I told him that he probably knows people but people do not talk about the subject openly. I did not tell him that I was one such person because I did not want him to think I was a less competent or able lawyer. I was scared of being perceived as weak.
Today, I realize the enormous strength it took for me to keep living. However, my experience in college taught me that, while survivors are not the ones who have something to feel ashamed about, there is judgment that accompanies coming forward with accusations of sexual assault. I did not attach my name to this piece because I do not want this one moment to define me. But if I could go back to that moment in criminal law my first year I would tell my classmate, “My experience was on a campus, but people of all gender identities, including one in six boys, are victims of sexual assault. We are here. We walk among you.”