“Nobody forced her to drink,” chided a slick-haired criminal defense attorney during a guest stint on Fox News Thursday. “What did she expect to happen at 1 a.m. in the morning, after sneaking out?”
But on Friday, a single voice rang out strong and clear enough to silence all the noise, at least momentarily: that of alleged victim Daisy Coleman, 15, who shared an astonishingly brave first-person essay about her ordeal with online magazine xoJane:
In the piece, Coleman takes us through the steps of that fateful night in January 2012 — the regretful texting with a boy her brother had warned her about, the drinking with her best friend, the sneaking out (yes, at “1 a.m. in the morning”), the numbness that followed the assault, the subsequent harassment from much of her hateful town, the feeling of being “ugly,” and the self-harm she ultimately sought refuge in.
“Since this happened, I've been in hospitals too many times to count. I've found it impossible to love at times. I've gained and lost friends. I no longer dance or compete in pageants. I'm different now, and I can't ever go back to the person I once was. That one night took it all away from me. I'm nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer. This is why I am saying my name. This is why I am not shutting up.”
“My scars only come to the surface when I'm tan or cold now,” she writes. “It's as if over time my body learned to heal some of the ugly, but it will always be a part of me. Just like this case. It will live with me forever.”
As a grownup and self-avowed feminist who has had difficulty speaking up about even the most comparatively minor offenses — being quickly groped on a mobbed subway, for example, or being spoken to with inappropriate innuendos by a co-worker — I find it hard to fully grasp the amount of fortitude it must have taken for Coleman to share her story. I do know that it is very rare.
Sexual-assault victims don’t always step out of the shadows where they are often placed — by lawyers and by the media — for what is said to be their own protection. Naming them publicly, that thinking goes, would cause further harm to their psyches because of the massive social stigma attached to being raped.
“Victims remain silent because they fear being subjected to the intense public scrutiny and blame that often follow being named in the media,” notes the website for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, which lobbies for members of the news media to protect the identities of victims. “Our culture continues to condemn the victim for rape and, as a result, an extraordinary amount of shame and silence follow the crime. Publicizing the name of a rape complainant under these conditions only deters more victims from coming forward.”
On the other side of the coin, though, is the belief that protecting the identity of a rape victim perpetuates that stigma, and that, by coming forward publicly, a raped individual can take back some of his or her own power.
That second argument has traditionally been a hard sell, and it is nearly unheard of for those who have been victimized sexually to come out right in the midst of their cases. Recent exceptions, though, have included Suzette Jordan, of India, who was gang raped in 2012 and known in media reports only as the “Park Street Rape Victim.”
She revealed her identity publicly just over a year later, during a protest march over the gang rape of the college student in Kamduni. "I have been a rape victim, a rape survivor. Why should I be ashamed and hide my face?” she told the Indian Express. “The criminals who raped me should hide their face in shame. I am tired of being referred to as the Park Street rape victim.”
Similarly, Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in May 2011 (and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount) came forward publicly just a few months later. “I have to be in public,” she told "Good Morning America." “I have to, for myself. I have to tell the truth."
With that, “the woman at the center of the case has taken control of her own story,” noted attorney and WNYC blogger Jami Floyd. “When we keep secret the victims’ identities, we may mean well,” she wrote. “But, in my view, we only contribute to the cycle of stigmatization by suggesting there is something of which to be ashamed.”
Whatever your opinion is on identifying victims, it’s hard to argue that a victim’s own decision to out him or herself publicly is anything but empowering and brave. And I, for one, applaud you, Daisy Coleman.