The anonymous young woman ‘changed the conversation about sexual assault forever,’ prompted a new rape law in California, and emboldened other survivors.
By Gretel Kauffman
Months after her letter to Brock Turner went viral, earning millions of views and social media shares and even making its way to the floor of Congress, “Emily Doe” has been named one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year.”
The anonymous now-23-year-old survivor of a sexual assault that took place on Stanford University’s California campus last year was propelled to international fame in June, when the statement she prepared to read to her attacker in court was first published by Buzzfeed News, later to be read aloud on CNN and by lawmakers on the floor of Congress. Within just four days, her message had generated more than 11 million views.
“The facts of the case were harrowing: On January 18, 2015, after a party, ‘Emily Doe,’ as she came to be called, had been sexually assaulted by freshman Brock Turner as she lay unconscious behind a dumpster; two men passing by on bicycles saw the crime and tackled Turner as he ran away,” wrote Cindi Leive for Glamour. “But it was Doe’s take-no-prisoners telling of what happened afterward – the relentless victim-blaming; the favoring of Turner, a student athlete – that changed the conversation about sexual assault forever.”
The attention paid to Ms. Doe’s letter – and the public outcry that ensued when Mr. Turner was handed a six-month sentence, denounced by many as too lenient – reflects an increasing awareness of, and backlash against, the justice system’s handling of sexual assault cases. In California, the case prompted a new definition of rape under the law. But the statement itself also sparked a shift in public attitudes with regard to sexual assault by opening up the conversation to a broader, mainstream audience, advocates say.
“Her letter was so eloquent and it was so poignant and it characterized, in such an articulate way, what so many victims and survivors go through,” says Jennifer Marsh, vice president for special projects at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
“And the idea that she stood up in court in front of her accuser and read this narrative of her experience in her own words was so powerful, I think that it crossed that line from just having other victims and survivors relate to it, but it spoke to everyone,” she continues. “And I think that that is what really made it a catalyst, something that really engaged people in a whole new way.”
The highly publicized case resulted in an effort to recall Santa Clara County, Calif., Judge Aaron Persky, a planned protest during Stanford’s commencement, and “who knows how many family conversations,” wrote Stacy Teicher Khadaroo for the Monitor in June. “It’s a level of outrage – and an outpouring of support for the survivor – that is unprecedented and encouraging, say scholars, activists, and legal professionals.”
“People are saying, enough is enough – we have to find justice that doesn’t just punish the people who seek it” after a sexual assault, Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., told the Monitor at the time. And, he added, “public attitudes about appropriate punishment often drive change.”
In fact, California legislators were prompted to passed a new law in September that mandates prison time for sexual assault perpetrators whose victims are unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to give consent for sex.
But Emily Doe’s statement influenced those well beyond California. It appeared to have a profound impact not only on those who had never experienced sexual assault but on those who had as well, Ms. Marsh says. Following the publication of the letter on Buzzfeed, RAINN experienced an increase in hotline usage and disclosure from victims. More bumps followed when the letter was read on CNN, in Congress, and in relation to the sentencing, with some callers saying that Doe had given them “the feeling that they were not alone.”
The anonymity of the Stanford survivor, who in her statement described the feelings she experienced through every stage of her assault and its aftermath, may have been one reason why her letter resonated so strongly with so many, suggested Leigh Gilmore, a distinguished visiting professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College, shortly after its publication.