23:36, September 23 76 0 theguardian.com

2019-09-23 23:36:04
When sexual assault survivors speak out, they help change the culture that enables it

Chanel Miller (previously known as “Emily Doe”), the convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s victim, has waived her anonymity and given her first television interview to the US program 60 Minutes. Timed to coincide with the publication of Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, it is a powerful riposte to the rape culture that enabled Miller’s assault – and led many to blame her, the victim.

As is now seared into the memory of many, BuzzFeed took the unprecedented decision in 2016 – a full year before #MeToo prompted a tsunami of women to bear witness to their experiences of sexual abuse – to publish Miller’s victim impact statement in full, which she had read in court the day Turner was sentenced.

Miller’s powerful account of the impact of Turner’s crime went viral, garnering four million hits in just four days. It was also read live on air by CNN’s host of Legal View, Ashleigh Banfield, and on the floor of the US Congress.

As Bill Whitaker, the 60 Minutes journalist who interviewed Miller, described it, the statement became “a manifesto” for sexual assault survivors all over the world. Many will never forget the first line: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Indeed, the impact of Miller’s decision to allow BuzzFeed to publish the statement and the publication’s interest in publishing it in the first place cannot be underestimated. They have helped reverse a long-term trend in media reporting of violence against women that often blames the victim, renders the perpetrator invisible, or foregrounds his feelings and the impact the crime has had on his life.

Four years ago I worked for Our Watch, Australia’s national foundation to prevent violence against women, where I established the national media engagement program to address precisely those issues. As part of that project, Our Watch commissioned the first national Australian study of media representations of violence against women, including a comprehensive analysis of the reporting of the 2015 Luke Lazarus rape trial, an Australian case with many striking similarities to that of Miller. The results of the study were alarming.

The research noted a “disproportionate focus on the accused compared to the complainant, including his family relations and the effect the case had on him and the associated muted and selective reporting of the victim impact statement”. There was a strong tendency by the media as recently as four years ago to “mute” the victim impact statement and focus on the point of view of the alleged perpetrator.

I’m sure that research would be painfully familiar to Miller, who recounted in the 60 Minutes interview how she came to learn she had been sexually assaulted. Miller, who was unconscious at the time of the attack, woke up in a hospital emergency room after two Swedish graduate students scared off Turner in the midst of the attack, chased him down and held him until police could arrive. Ten days later, while Miller was at work, she came across a news story detailing Turner’s arrest for sexual assault, with the media describing him as a “star swimmer” with “Olympic hopes”, while she was the simply the “intoxicated” and “unconscious” victim.

“The first thing I did after reading the article is read the comments and there were many, awful, hateful words,” Miller told 60 Minutes. “What was she doing at a frat party, this isn’t really rape, why was she alone, why would you even get that drunk.”

Miller has written her memoir and decided to participate in media interviews revealing her identity because she is on a mission to combat the very rape myths and victim-blaming personified by those comments. “Rape is not a punishment for getting drunk – we have this really sick mindset in our culture that you ‘deserve’ rape if you drink to excess,” she told 60 Minutes.

That point, and the damaging nature of the media reporting at the time of Turner’s arrest and trial, were also stressed by the prosecutor in the case, Alaleh Kianerci, who spoke to 60 Minutes. “A lot of people were looking at what Brock Turner had to lose instead of what he did to Chanel,” said Kianerci.

Thankfully, that is slowly changing.

Here in Australia, Saxon Mullins, the victim in the Lazarus case, which was the subject of the Our Watch study, also took the decision to waive her anonymity last year to speak to Louise Milligan for an ABC Four Corners special episode, I Am that Girl.

Journalist and campaigner Nina Funnell launched the Let Her Speak campaign to repeal gag laws in Tasmania and the Northern Territory that prevent journalists from naming victims of sexual abuse, even with their consent. Funnell wanted to “highlight why it is important survivor voices are included in public debates”.

As Miller, Mullins and Funnell so powerfully demonstrate, victims who speak out can fundamentally change how we understand sexual assault, the culture that enables it and, most importantly, who should be held accountable. Hint: never the victim.

Just one caveat, which I was reminded of recently when Funnell posted an article on social media warning of the dangers of reducing women’s stories of sexual abuse (and I intensely dislike using the word “story” to describe women’s experiences of abuse) to what some have called “inspiration porn”.

It is important to remember that there is so much more to these stories than an “inspiring” tale of the power of the human spirit to “overcome”. These women are not overcoming what happened to them. Their experiences have shaped them. They have deeply uncomfortable truths to share. And they are advocating, successfully, for changes to deliver justice to victims and promote much-needed conversations about consent.

So yes, by all means pay tribute to their bravery. But more importantly, really listen to what they have to say – even if it is confronting.

If we are only ever “inspired”, than we are not doing it right. Having long been “muted”, blamed and dismissed, survivors of sexual assault deserve nothing less than our full attention.

Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based freelance writer

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