Lessons from a summer of sexual assault


I remember driving home from a high school party one night during junior year while my best friend vomited in the back seat. In so many ways, it was a quintessential portrait of youth: one lanky 17-year-old sprawled over the back seat, throwing up alcohol into a bucket, while another tried not to get pulled over by the police for driving after curfew. 

When we got back to my house, my mother was waiting up to help me with Caroline (not her real name), who was so sick we considered taking her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. She was totally out of it: eyes closed, mumbling incoherently, unable to walk on her own or dial a phone number. My mother, being the tireless caretaker that she was, insisted I get a good night’s sleep while she stayed up until 4 a.m. holding Caroline’s head over my bathtub.  

By late morning, Caroline was awake and had climbed into bed with me. She had a very distressed look on her face. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “I don’t remember what happened to me last night. Did I hook up with someone?”

The only clue Caroline had that some sort of sexual activity occurred was the fact that when she woke, her underwear was on inside-out. She remembered making out with someone early in the night, but not much else. When she called that person, he said, “Yes, we had sex.” But she knew it was rape. 

Before a single word of this was repeated to anyone, the guy enlisted a squadron of friends to intimidate her into silence. Besides, his friends said, he was a really bright student and “a good guy.” He “never meant any harm.” 

The drama of the episode died down pretty quickly and was never reported. But I imagine the trauma of having been violated while passed out never entirely faded for Caroline, whom I lost touch with after college. 

I thought about this episode countless times in recent months, because the summer of 2016 will be remembered, at least in part, as a time when the national conversation focused on sexual assault and may have even shifted in the direction of redemption for some of its victims.

For far too long, perpetrators of sexual assault have gotten all the attention, all the benefit of the doubt, and all the best lawyers, so to honor this summer’s awakening, I want to instead focus on four examples of women who have reclaimed their voices and helped redirect America’s culture of impunity toward a culture of accountability.

1. On June 3, a female reporter for BuzzFeed posted the wrenching letter to the court written by the 23-year-old woman sexually brutalized by Stanford University freshman Brock Turner. When her message went viral, a woman who had found herself beaten down and betrayed by the system was empowered to realize her strength as an engine of moral conscience. 

“Nobody wins,” she read aloud in the courtroom the day the judge sentenced her attacker to a measly six months in prison (in the end, he was released after serving only three). “We have all been devastated; we have all been trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering.” 

“Your damage was concrete,” she said to her attacker, “stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen. … You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

Her voice, full of outrage and humanity, articulated a story so vivid it read like poetry, and so truthful it held all perpetrators of sexual assault and their enablers to account where the U.S. justice system had failed.

2. A month later, on July 6, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson announced she had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against then-Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. This triggered a volcanic eruption at Rupert Murdoch’s media company, with scores of women coming forward to tell their stories of having been harassed, exploited, manipulated and belittled by Ailes, who had presided over the network with an iron first and silver spoon for two decades.

Laurie Luhn, Marsha Callahan, Kellie Boyle and Shelley Ross are just a handful of the women who took their stories to the press and refused to be cowed into silence any longer. After being pressured by Murdoch and sons, Ailes resigned in disgrace (but with a reported $40 million in severance) on July 21.

3. In August, as Hollywood multi-hyphenate Nate Parker stood to gain increased status and acclaim ahead of the October release of his film “The Birth of a Nation,” about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion that took place in Virginia in 1831, the writer and activist Roxane Gay took to the pages of The New York Times with an op-ed on “The Limits of Empathy” — especially when it comes to Hollywood stars (think: Woody Allen and Bill Cosby).

In 1999, Parker and his roommate at Penn State University, Jean McGianni Celestin (who would become a writing partner on “The Birth of a Nation”), were accused of raping a young woman. The details are ugly and too complicated to list here, but it’s worth noting that the victim attempted suicide twice before finally ending her suffering in 2012. She left behind a son.

“I have my own history with sexual violence, so I cannot consider such stories with impartiality, though I do try,” Gay wrote in the Times. “It is my gut instinct to believe the victim because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn.

“I want to have empathy for [Nate Parker], but everything he says and does troubles me,” she continued. “We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art. Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be. … I can no longer watch ‘The Cosby Show,’ for example, without thinking of the numerous sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Suddenly, his jokes are far less funny.”

4. This new openness hit closest to home, however, when a friend and leader in our community came out as a sexual assault survivor at a public gathering in May. The event was organized by California State Sen. Ben Allen, who chose to honor Oscar-winning filmmaker Amy Ziering with a “Woman of the Year” award for her change-making documentary films “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground,” both of which focus on the scourge of sexual assault — in the military and on college campuses. Ziering had invited her friend, Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust at Pan Pacific Park, to introduce her, and for the first time, Hutman told her story publicly of having been molested by a neighbor as an 8-year-old girl. 

“For somebody who has had an experience of sexual assault, violence, abuse, I have a very thin sensitivity to people being wronged and it not being talked about,” Hutman told me when I called her afterward to talk.

She decided to speak out because she was inspired by the courage of all the women in Ziering’s films who shared their stories at great personal risk. 

“Her movies are literally doing the thing that we talk about with students in our [Righteous Conversations] workshops, which are about using media and film to shine a light on things that are hidden and broken,” Hutman said. “We teach them that if you can use your camera and your voice to shine a light, you can change the culture. And Amy was a pinnacle example of somebody who had done exactly that — she kind of shattered the silence.”

There is almost never an upside to a woman telling her story — whether to the world or to the police. As Gay points out in her op-ed, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “out of every 1,000 rapes, 344 will be reported to the police, 63 of those reports will lead to an arrest, 13 cases will be referred to a prosecutor, seven of those cases will lead to a felony conviction and six of those perpetrators will serve prison time.”

It is nothing less than an act of spiritual resistance and moral courage for a woman to come forward with her truth about sexual assault. And so I celebrate all the brave women of the summer of 2016 and beyond, who speak out in the face of great peril; I also celebrate the women who have been unfairly bullied into silence, including my high school best friend who suffered greatly and never saw justice.

“You’re never going to have a world in which there is not brutality,” Hutman said. “We’ve never seen a time in history where it is a utopian, cruel-free world. So if you take that as a given, that there’s going to be trouble between people, it seems like the best thing we can do is be vigilant against the possibility.”

And let us say, Amen.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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