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I Am Jane Doe: An Open Letter to CNN, Poppy Harlow and All Steubenville Rapist Sympathizers

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Chelsea Levinson


By Chelsea Levinson on March 21, 2013


I didn’t see you talk about the Steubenville rape verdict live.

I heard about it through the worked-up feminist grapevine, and I braced myself to either be annoyed at online media for blowing some idiotic cable news gaffe out of proportion, or to be disappointed as a result of yet another rousing episode of “America Hates Women.”

What I watched broke my heart.

I didn’t want to write this letter, but you gave me no choice. You gave me no voice. Nearly a decade of healing and careful reconstruction of self-worth was stripped away from me with your words.

You see, I am Jane Doe. And she is me.

The man who raped me was a white college football player with good grades. I heard that he enrolled in law school the very same year I did. I have also heard from people who know him that he is a “good guy.”

I wanted to press charges. I was going to press charges. I’m not sure if you know this, but prosecuting for rape or sexual assault in New York City, not to mention throughout much of America, is basically the worst ordeal one can imagine. It quite literally feels as though one is inserting oneself into a nightmare, feeling re-violated at each step of the process: years of paperwork, countless police interviews, psychological evaluations, evidence gathering, probing and prodding of your body by multiple strangers, and being forced to recount and thus re-live the worst night of your life over and over and over ad nauseum. I can’t fathom any woman I know voluntarily submitting to this broken, victim-blaming system on behalf of a wrongful accusation.

• SEE ALSO: Sorry, CNN, The Onion Did It First

I will never forget the nurse who checked me into the trauma unit — my first contact at the hospital — less than 24 hours after I was forced to fight for my autonomy, not to mention my life. She scolded me for “taking part” in my own attack by drinking alcohol. (Yes, women perpetuate rape culture too.) Thankfully my best friend was there to stick up for me, because my spirit was too broken at the time to muster anything in my own defense. And then there were the countless stock, doubt-filled speeches spilling from the mouths of police officers and doctors alike: “Your chances for success aren’t great — nobody’s are. It will take years. Let’s just gather as much evidence as possible and put together the best case we can.”

I told myself I had to be brave. I had to be strong for every other woman out there. If I could teach just one man a lesson on what it means to say “no,” the world might be just a fraction safer. Even if it meant a scarlet “S” on this alleged good guy’s chest: Sex Offender.

If he couldn’t find any other reason to stop himself from suffocating another woman under his weight, then let his reason be that damned stain on his name. Let him have that badge of dishonor, which he earned, so the next girl, god forbid there be one, won’t have to feel as much fear and doubt as I did. Is my evidence enough? Who will vouch for me? Will I be partially at fault in the eyes of the law and society, solely because I was drunk?

The “S” would tell her to be Strong, that I fought this battle, and she can too. If we don’t stop him, he will still be able to go out there and rape. Some of my darkest thoughts to this day are the painful knowing that he probably has.

I, as Jane Doe, never got my day in court. But Steubenville’s Jane Doe did.

She stood up to her attackers, and an entire town rallying against her. She took the stand and told her truth, and I can only imagine that she did her best to block out the echoing in her head of all of those people calling her whore, slut, drunk bitch … and saying it was her fault for destroying a golden team.

She is a hero who stuck up for me, and everyone else who has been silenced, and her heroicism never even got a mention out of you, Poppy.

In one fell swoop, you ignored both her pain and her fierce fight to prosecute. You put a discussion of the broken “bright” futures of two criminals, two rapists, above a discussion about what a victory this verdict is for girls (and boys) like me — for girls EVERYWHERE. You lamented over how difficult it was for you to watch these “two young men” break down into tears, and fretted over the impact this decision would have on their lives.

What about the impact on Jane Doe, on me, and on countless like me? How are you and so many others so overwhelmingly concerned about the future of these violators, sighing over what a sad situation this whole thing is? How can you simply silence and discard us?

Do you think because we don’t reveal our names that we don’t deserve sympathy? That because we’re shamed into keeping our silence, our lives are not ruined? Do you really think that an “alcohol-fueled” environment excuses men from abstaining to rape?

Trent Mays, Ma'lik Richmond
Trent Mays, left, Ma’lik Richmond, right; AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

You threw Jane Doe under the bus. You threw all of us under the bus.

I try to imagine you solemnly expressing these sympathies for two young murderers of a 16-year-old girl. Would you say how sad it is to see their lives ruined by imprisonment? Or would you use words like “heinous,” “disgusting” and “unthinkable” to describe their crimes?

Alas, when a young boy rapes a girl, it’s a “misstep.” He’s still learning the boundaries. He doesn’t know what he’s doing is rape. I hate to be the one to break the news (ha!), but the boundaries are simple. Everything outside of a “yes” and/or enthusiastic consent is outside the boundaries.

And anyone who violates those boundaries earns their “S.”

I understand that these boys, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, aren’t necessarily monsters. I understand that they are young and ignorant and need help and guidance. I hope they get that. I really do. I hope they learn from their mistakes, and I truly hope that neither one so much as thinks about violating another woman. But it is quite clear that the culture in the town of Steubenville did not, and is not, providing that guidance. And the media responses, tweets, and comments sections of most articles discussing the Steubenville case make clear that Steubenville is not special or unique in this regard.

I’m not asking you to NOT to feel empathy for these perpetrators. What I am asking you, the media, and society at large to do, is to educate them better. Teach them what rape is, and raise them not to do it.

I’m just asking you to think of us, the victims, first.

To remember that we had no choice, and that nothing we ate, drank or wore that night had any factual bearing on what was done to us; what was taken from us.

To be mindful that we fought, not just for ourselves, but for women everywhere.

To applaud us for being strong.

To empathize with our plight as women, as we struggle to heal ourselves, to put the pieces of our lives back together and emerge from the role of “victim” into “survivor.”

To facilitate frank and honest discussion about what constitutes rape and how we can prevent it, rather than how we can cover it up better.

And to help put a stop to this protective rape culture, and replace it with a preventative one, once and for all. Is that too much to ask?

Tweet Chelsea at @chelslevinson.

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