From Sex Ed to Sexual Assault: The Wisdom of Jane Doe

Published in Vermont Woman, September 2016

We Americans are an interesting lot. We embrace innovation and technology, value personal freedoms over societal safety, and are divided about how to address issues including, but not limited to wealth inequality, gun laws, institutionalized racism and sexism, comprehensive sex education, and campus sexual assault.

Simultaneously, in American society, we (1) readily adopt technology allowing ever-younger children access to sexualized media and pornography, thereby reinforcing the objectification of girls and women, (2) accept spiraling college tuitions, such that some young women are engaging in “companion” services in trade for tuition and living expenses, with payments by sugar daddies processed through PayPal, (3) decry statistics regarding the occurrence of rape on college campuses (e.g., one out of five; 20 to 25 percent over the course of five years of a college education), and (4) use social media apps (e.g., Tinder) to engage in casual sex or hookups.

Stories are teachers. Healers. Guides. Sometimes storytellers drop bits of wisdom along the path of details. The Stanford rape case, as it has become known since June of this year, and, specifically, the related victim’s statement is one such story.

A woman was raped by Brock Turner, a freshman at Stanford University, whom she encountered at a fraternity party. Alcohol was involved, but it was neither the culprit nor the crime. Turner was caught—next to a dumpster—assaulting the unconscious, intoxicated woman (aka Jane Doe) by two Swedish male, graduate students, who happened to be biking by and realized she was unresponsive. According to the victim’s letter, the Swede who tackled Turner as he attempted to run away “was crying so hard he couldn’t speak because of what he’d seen.” Turner was convicted and sentenced to six months in county jail and three years of probation because, according to presiding Judge Persky, a longer sentence would have a “severe impact on him.” The case spiraled into global public awareness and incited viral outrage due to the sentencing.

Of recent note, after serving only three months of his six-month sentence, Turner was released August 26, 2016, for good behavior. In response to the light sentence and the resulting outcry, the California legislature passed a bill on August 29 that would make a three-year jail term mandatory in cases like Turner’s. The bill will need to be signed by California governor Jerry Brown before it can become law.

At sentencing, Jane Doe read her victim statement. (It has since had over 12 million hits.) She makes the “severe impact” of her experience visceral and heartfelt. Her reflections about the assault and related events and the yearlong court case provide an opportunity to reflect on what precedes and follows sexual assault. There are guideposts for individuals, parents, schools, and other institutions (e.g., legal, medical) to take note of. Using the victim’s own words (in italics), let’s consider just a few of the reveals and possibilities.

The Immediate Aftermath
I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore … I pretended the whole thing wasn’t real. Victims of sexual assault have unique and universal responses. Experiencing tumultuous, overwhelming emotions and dissociating from their bodies and/or the reality of the experience (e.g., acknowledging victimization or violation) are common reactions. Having adequate familial, social, medical, therapeutic, and/or advocacy support through the process is essential to stabilization and healing. While shock, revulsion, dissociation, and feeling overwhelmed are common elements of the immediate trauma response, victims need to understand the processes that take place should one choose to report sexual assault (or wait to do so).Seeking immediate medical care is essential, as is preserving evidence.

Furthermore, since 2011, colleges are federally mandated through Title IX legislation to pursue an internal investigation of alleged sexual assaults involving students. The implementation of Title IX policies and procedures are still in a fledgling stage on many campuses and are coming under sharp criticism from both accusers and the accused. Parallel to this, a criminal or civil case may be pursued by the state or victim, respectively.

Sex Education Crucial
Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gone, then this never would have happened. But then I realized, it would have happened, just to somebody else. You were about to enter four years of access to drunk girls and parties, and if this is the foot you started off on, then it is right you did not continue. Many students, inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations, leave high school and enter college with inadequate sex education, let alone education placed within a relational, respectful context. In “The Birds and the Bees: A Comprehensive Look at Sex Education in America” (The Explorer, Hudson High School, March 2016), author Caleigh Harris outlines the bleak reality of America’s state-determined sex education curriculums or lack thereof. More than half of the states do not require public schools to include sex education in their health curriculum. Nineteen states require curriculum to be “medically accurate,” while other states only require information on HIV/AIDS. Harris notes, “A ‘mediocre’ sex education experience has its consequences when students are freshly out of high school. Specifically, college freshmen are targeted as one of the most high-risk groups for sexual assault on a college campus.”

In contrast, Sweden (the homeland of Jane Doe’s “heroes” in this story) has since 1956 implemented a mandated, comprehensive, national sex education program that begins in preschool, as outlined by Kelly J. Bell in Wake Up and Smell the Condoms: An Analysis of Sex Education Programs in the United States, The Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, France and Germany. Two of the ethical principles of their program, delineated by Harris, and as quoted from the Swedish National Board of Education, are: (1) “Nobody is entitled to treat another human being simply as a means of self gratification.” (2) “Mental pressure and physical force are always a violation of individual liberty.”

The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, and France all have nationally implemented sex education programs, too. Based on Bell’s comparative analysis, she states: “In summary, the United States has failed its youth and put their health at great risk by denying them adequate sex education and sexual health services. The Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, France and Germany all show better results on measures of teenage sexual health than the United States … Teen sexuality is normalized in these countries and youth are encouraged to set their own boundaries, respect others, and make informed, responsible choices.”

Communication and Consent
Future reference, if you are confused about whether a girl can consent, see if she can speak an entire sentence … By definition rape is the absence of promiscuity, rape is the absence of consent. Clear communications regarding consent are essential, with the understanding it can be revoked at any time during an encounter. Despite the current cultural climate, individuals should not assume someone is available for casual or hookup sex. Consent and rape laws vary from state to state. It is wise for a student to know the laws in the state where he or she is residing and/or will be attending college. Once a legal adult at 18, common sense and decency can and should dictate boundaries and clarity of consent. If an individual is under the influence of substances, any participating individual is taking a risk. If the person is clearly compromised, the risk of miscommunications leading to sexual misconduct and then to assault elevates dramatically. If someone is falling down or unconscious, he or she cannot give consent. Help the person get to a safe place and/or with a safe person he or she knows.

Taking Responsibility
If a first time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be? Simply translated: White. Male. Privilege. It’s a thing, as strongly evidenced in this case, not just in the sentencing phase, where race, economic/educational privilege, and athletic success weighed positively in the defendant’s favor, but in the sexist, victim-blaming approach taken by Turner’s legal counsel. This woman assumed, given the witnesses and evidence, Turner would not go to trial and instead would take responsibility, apologize, and they would both go on to recover their lives. She learned clearly and painfully how the power structures work.

Figure out how to take responsibility for your own conduct. Yes. Unfortunately, this was lacking through Turner’s persistent focus on college drinking culture as an excuse for his actions. Turner’s father showed his own difficulty in this regard, too. In a letter by Turner’s father to the judge, he made a horribly insensitive statement, as an appeal to have his son spared of incarceration: “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Poor choices are timeless. Bullets are faster than the length of sexual assaults and no one gets to claim less culpability if they injure or kill a person. Ironically, Jane Doe sounds like she would have welcomed honest remorse and personal accountability and would have supported a reduced sentence. Missed opportunities and extended, unnecessary suffering abound in this story.

Valuing Everyone
Nobody wins. You cannot give me back the life I had before that night either. Jane Doe and Brock Turner’s lives are irrevocably altered. Not ruined, necessarily. But definitely altered. She is stating one of the most basic truths of sexual assault and the aftermath for both parties. How perpetrators take responsibility and engage in meaningful restitution and how victims pursue justice and healing matters.

Finally, a message to girls everywhere: you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. This is a corrective message and could serve as an antidote. It could be written on big banners and flown across the sky, or overwritten across every piece of sexualized media girls and women encounter day after day, the endless stream of magazine covers, pop-up ads, degrading pornography, the means and ways economic and institutional systems reinforce their primary currency is their bodies. Maybe in an expansive world, we could find a parallel message for our boys and young men, too. They, too, deserve an antidote to how American masculinity is defined and limited to sexual prowess and power-over dynamics, while constraining emotional expression and intimacy in primary relationships.

Maybe these messages could be part of a comprehensive, nationwide sex education program. We may be 60 years behind Sweden, but it only takes 60 seconds to decide to catch up.