Sexual Assault Cases Can Revictimize the Victim

Pictured: Chanel Miller. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Pictured: Chanel Miller. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Kelly Christ, Staff Writer

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Editor’s note: article contains mention of sexual assault.

In June of 2016, Chanel Miller delivered a victim impact statement that everyone listening in the California courtroom would remember. Then anonymously referred to as “Emily Doe,” she addressed her attacker directly, beginning with “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me. And that’s why we’re here today.”

The trial was one of the most controversial in recent history. Miller was raped by Stanford University student Brock Turner at a fraternity party on campus. Her testimony in that courtroom illuminated the immeasurable trauma that sexual assault creates. She also brought to attention another important and painful aspect of her experience: how she was treated afterward.

On that night in 2015, two graduate students passing by noticed the sexual assault taking place and confronted the attacker, 20-year-old Turner, whom then fled the scene. Despite these witnesses, Miller’s own agency over her experience was minimized during the trial. As Miller explained, “[Turner’s] attorney constantly reminded the jury the only one we can believe is Brock because she doesn’t remember. That helplessness was traumatizing.”

A traumatic event puts an individual at high risk for a multitude of mental health conditions, particularly anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The way that sexual violence cases are handled and imagined in the minds of the media and general public at large, further aggravates these conditions. As Miller recounted in her victim statement, “Instead of taking time to heal, I was taking time to recall the night in excruciating detail, in order to prepare for the attorney’s questions that would be invasive, aggressive and designed to steer me off course.”

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 90% of women who are survivors of rape report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, during the two weeks after their assault.

Survivors are also more likely to abuse drugs, practice unsafe sex or experience emotional problems or distress following their assault. These behaviors are also frequently long-term, and the treatment of survivors in the media or by authorities can aggravate these effects.

Chanel Miller had been known as “Emily Doe” until September of this year, when her identity as the victim from Turner’s trial in 2016 became public. She published a memoir, titled “Know My Name,” which was released on Sept. 24. In many ways, this memoir was an opportunity to take ownership over her story.

The Netflix original miniseries “Unbelievable,” based upon the article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller in 2015, has brought the treatment of sexual violence survivors into the recent spotlight as well. The series portrays the true story of a woman, known as “Marie,” who survived a sexual assault.

However, Marie is soon accused of lying and even charged with a gross misdemeanor for false accusation. Her story was ultimately validated when two detectives discovered through a similar case that Marie’s attacker was a serial rapist in Colorado. As The Fordham Ram’s contributing writer Katie Schulte wrote in her review of the series, “The denial of the survivor’s agency as seen through Marie only works to revictimize her.”

These two journeys of rape survival highlight the need for an improvement in both the way that we, as a whole, view rape and sexual violence, as well as a need to implement effective change in the protocols of involved systems.

In the United Kingdom in 2018, prosecutors were urged to drop charges in rape cases that were deemed “weak” in order to improve conviction rates. In the United States, for every 1,000 sexual assaults that are reported to the police, just 46 will lead to an arrest, with 995 of the perpetrators avoiding incarceration.

These bleak statistics do not help survivors heal from their trauma. While of course there must be due investigation into the validity of accusations, the rates of conviction, incarceration and even the reporting of the crime itself are markedly lower than those of other crimes.

Survivors lose an essential sense of agency when they are treated more like suspects than victims.

Instead of focusing on the heinous nature of the crimes committed, the defense often looks to show the jury that the victim deserved it someway.

These ideas serve to worsen the toll that this trauma has on their mental health: Not only have they been traumatized, but now they are made to constantly question whether they deserves this.

The fear of sexual assault, especially in a college setting, contributes to an increased anxiety among female students in particular. One in five female students are projected to experience sexual assault, with first year students being the most common victims. The presence of the “hook-up culture” and party atmosphere of alcohol and drugs complicates the issue further. The majority of these instances go unreported. Female students are often taught to take extra precaution in potentially dangerous situations in order to protect themselves. However, it is imperative that the repercussions for perpetrators be a strong deterrent against the acts themselves.

In the case of Chanel Miller, the judge’s concern and ultimately light sentencing prioritized the attacker’s future. The focus was on the potential consequences to Turner’s swimming career rather than the trauma that Miller had to endure and would continue to face in lasting emotional effects.

With the world now knowing her name, we can hope that the authority and agency of survivors of sexual violence will continue to increase as they walk in Miller’s footsteps. As Miller put it herself, “It is enough to be suffering. It is another thing to have someone ruthlessly working to diminish the gravity of validity of this suffering.”

If you are struggling with mental health issues, do not hesitate to contact the following resources:
Fordham University Counseling and Psychological Services (RH): 718-817-3725
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255