The anonymous words firing up millions

In this Feb. 2, 2015 photo, former Stanford student and athlete Brock Turner appaers in a Palo Alto, Calif., courtroom. A fledgling campaign to recall the judge who sentenced the former Stanford University swimmer to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman gained momentum Friday, June 10, 2016, as three prominent political consultants joined the effort. (Karl Mondon/San Jose Mercury News via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT©AP

A young woman stands naked in a hospital room as nurses hold up rulers to measure the abrasions on her body. One by one they work to remove the pine needles from her hair — enough to fill an entire bag. Slowly the facts of the night are revealed to her: she had been found lying unconscious on the ground next to a dumpster while a stranger penetrated her, a scene that only ended when two passing cyclists called the police, tackling the perpetrator when he tried to run.

It is a scene from the most searing piece of writing to come out of the US this year — not a novel, or an essay, but the 7,000-word closing statement of the assault’s survivor at the trial of her assailant, Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer.

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The woman, who remains anonymous, shared her statement with BuzzFeed this month after Turner was given a six-month jail sentence, three months of which are likely to be probation, despite being found guilty of three charges of sexual assault — which carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Explaining why he had handed out a lighter than expected sentence, Judge Aaron Persky said he worried about the “severe impact” that a longer one would have on Turner’s future.

Instead, Mr Persky has cast both Turner and himself further into the limelight in a case that could end up being transformative in the effort to prevent sexual assault on campus, in much the way that the campaign group Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped to reduce alcohol-related fatalities in the US.

it is hard to understate how swiftly public opinion and awareness towards sexual assault has shifted

One in five American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control, while a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey this month found that 20 per cent of female undergraduates (2011-2015) had been sexually assaulted either by physical force or while incapacitated. The US Department of Justice says two in three sexual assaults go unreported.

These statistics are not new. Yet it is hard to understate how swiftly public opinion and awareness towards sexual assault has shifted.

When I was a student at Stanford less than a decade ago, sexual assault awareness was largely limited to formal events, such as Take Back The Night marches. There were no widespread conversations about consent, and sexual assault was largely limited to a narrow textbook definition. It is hard to imagine today’s Stanford rape case having the same resonance then that it has had now.

Since BuzzFeed posted the survivor’s letter on June 3, her words have been read by more than 16.5m people and covered by every major US news outlet. Thirty members of Congress have vowed to read the letter aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives, in an attempt to crack down on campus sexual assault. Joe Biden, vice-president, wrote an open letter to the survivor. “I don’t know your name,“ he wrote, “but your words are seared on my soul.”

The outrage has been stoked by the jarring contrast between the young woman’s letter and Turner’s testimony and letters from his friends and family. Turner blamed the events on peer pressure to drink alcohol, party and be promiscuous. “One decision has the potential to change your entire life,” he told the court. In character witness statements, his father lamented that his son no longer enjoyed eating steak or his favourite snacks.

For many critics of the trial’s outcome, their words rang hollow — as did Judge Persky’s sentence. More than 1m people have signed an online petition demanding Mr Persky be recalled; others have noted that Mr Persky was a Stanford student and star university athlete, making him more likely to sympathise with the defendant, they claim.

While many focus their anger on the judge or Turner, it is important to remember the potential for good this case could bring. Until Mothers Against Drunk Driving took off in the 1980s few believed an advocacy group could affect change against drunk driving. “Drunk driving was the only socially acceptable form of homicide,” as Candace Lightner, MADD’s founder, put it.

Ultimately, MADD’s success lay in getting the American public to sympathise with the victim. One would hope the Stanford assault case could have a similar effect.

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