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Thank You, Chanel Miller

Trigger Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault. If reading about sexual violence isn’t good for you right now, please do not engage with this article. Recovery is non-linear, and even clicking on this piece means you are one step closer to healing. 




In September of 2019, sexual assault survivor, previously dubbed Emily Doe, announced her name to the public. After her undergraduate career, Chanel Miller survived a violent sexual assault on Stanford University’s campus. Rapist Brock Turner had attacked Miller while she was unconscious and intoxicated. The case, the People v. Brock Turner,  was a landmark trial that pushed public outcry against sexual injustices experienced by survivors and victims before the age of #MeToo. 


Chanel Miller told the Times that her memoir “Know My Name” will be released on September 22nd. It recounts her story of surviving violence and the events that followed. 


During the case, Miller did not expect that a crime of such violence could be contested with such force. She was wrong. From Turner’s hired PIs to cultural followers on Facebook, countless people worked to invalidate her experience and disengage her from justice.  Media coverage quickly became a battle of narratives behind whether or not Miller was telling the truth and if Brock Turner was a criminal. Surprisingly, this case of such violence was easily contested. 


During the dramatic case, Miller made an iconic statement to Turner directly. Buzzfeed released the script, reading:


I was told he hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators who were going to try and find details about my personal life to use against me, find loopholes in my story to invalidate me and my sister, in order to show that this sexual assault was in fact a misunderstanding. That he was going to go to any length to convince the world he had simply been confused.”


Turner’s efforts to minimize legal repercussions paid off, as he was sentenced to six months in the county jail by California Judge Aaron Persky on crimes that could warrant decades in prison. Judge Persky exempted Turner from federal conviction on felony charges, citing the “severe impact” prison would have on his life. On good behavior, Turner was released halfway through his sentence in 2017. 


So how did this happen? How can violent sex offenders evade the law? 


The response to sexual violence begins and ends with how the law is written and performed by defendants, plaintiffs, lawyers, judges, and juries across the country. Sex crime cases are built by first responders and then prosecutors upon first contact with survivors. Unlike many crimes, sexual violence investigations “[take] time and painstaking work,” as they need tons of evidence that is difficult and triggering to find to garner success. First responders are the pimrary contact for survivors, a profession without thorough sexual assault response training. For investigators, sex crimes are low prestige, taking large budgets that don’t exist and trained professionals in a job with high turnover rates.  In a Minneapolis study in 2019, it was found that:


  • First responders don’t assign investigators on a quarter of the cases.

  • Investigators only interview the survivor on two-thirds of assigned cases. 

  • 75% of cases are never forwarded to prosecutors. 

  • Fewer than 1 in 10 reports end in conviction.


These statistics raise questions. What would cause a first responder to not assign an investigator to so many cases? What do investigators gain by not interviewing survivors on cases they are assigned? Why are 75% of cases not sent to prosecutors, and whose choice is it to forward the case to a prosecutor? If less than a tenth of reports end in conviction, how many cases have been stripped from justice between the first responder’s first contact with the case and the end of a trial?  


Adding to the layers of this already difficult case, Turner was a young, white man. Courtrooms don’t want white men to go to prison, and Turner had credibility in court because of his whiteness (Fricker, 2007). As reported by the American Sociological Review in 1980, “compared to other defendants, black men who assaulted white women received more serious charges and longer sentences; they were more likely to have their cases filed as felonies, receive executed sentences, and be incarcerated in the State penitentiary.” To the public, white men who commit crimes are “lone wolves” with “troubled pasts” and “good families.” Black men who commit crimes are “violent” “thugs,” whose families, disposition, and personal accomplishments are never mentioned. Public perceptions of race, class, and crime are not changed for the better when courts give favors to white men, and “actions and statements amplify the public’s racial associations of crime.” Nobody wins when cases are skewed to benefit the defendant from the get-go. 


As a white, wealthy, Stanford undergraduate student-athlete, Turner’s social and political influence and credibility were paramount. Whiteness and crime is a self-feeding problem. Whites are statistically less likely to encounter the law during their lives. This does not mean that white people commit fewer crimes than people of color. During those instances in which a white person engages with law enforcement, “their experiences are often qualitatively different from those of people of color.” There is a reason why white people are more likely to favor punitive punishment. After all, why would white people lobby and vote against a system that favors them? 


Even though Turner had a rapport in the law because of his identities and privilege, Miller’s case should have held ground, right?


Miller had all the physical evidence needed to win her case. She was found unconscious behind a dumpster outside by two credible witnesses. Upon investigation, it was clear that her clothes were forcefully removed. She was clearly beaten. She was intoxicated, therefore legally unable to give consent to any sexual act. Turner was a stranger. There were pine needles in her body. Her case made it to trial, and her case still lost. She still got death threats. 


Just as there are reasons behind Turner’s success, so too there are reasons why Miller’s case didn’t end in stare decisis. Stare decisis, latin for “let the decision stand,” means that a case is following a previous landmark case’s decision. Usually, judges are rewarded for following the decision making of previous trials. Sex law is rewarded for physical evidence and credible testimony- marks of violence and force rewarded while testimonials from survivors on experience are not. Very few of all rapes are violent in this manner. After all, if the survivor was drunk, how would they know the attack wasn’t consensual? Since very few sex crime cases go to trial, sex crime myth remains intact. 


Even if a case makes it to trial, it’s hard to truly win for survivors. Even in Chanel Miller’s case in 2016 with a world of credible evidence on her side, the man that attacked her got off easy. Lili Loofbourow wrote for Slate that:


“... [S]kepticism is baked into the way many of us have been raised to think; on hearing rape, many an American—including those who work in criminal justice—believes that what one party calls a rape might actually be a misunderstanding, or a miscommunication, or an oversexualized society’s fault. And these ideas are so deeply rooted they can keep hold even when the assailant has been convicted.”


Chanel Miller was attacked by a stranger. She was interrogated by police, invaded by medical professionals, ripped apart on the internet, and disrespected in the courtroom.  After the case, Miller wrote "My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self-deprecating, tired, irritable, empty.” After years of harm, Chanel Miller is here anyway.


Chanel Miller is not a victim. 


Though we use the term “victim” to elaborate that someone was harmed by violence to reflect legal literature, we don’t have to. As someone who has surpassed incredible pain and violence, a traumatizing and draining case, and mass amounts of abuse from the public, Chanel Miller is a survivor. Anyone who has experienced sexual violence, whether it be harassment, assault, or rape, is a survivor. 


Every survivor has different needs and desires for how they want to respond to their violence. Many survivors do not want the option of seeing their attacker, and for those survivors responding to a violent illegal crime, pursuing legal charges is entirely valid. There are also hoards of reasons why survivors do not report, which is an entirely different paper to write. For Chanel Miller, court was how she wanted to respond to violence. 


How to Act


California has already responded. Though the trial was held years earlier,  California voters stood with Ms. Miller in recalling Judge Aaron Persky in 2018. Judge Persky was the first judge in California to be recalled since 1932. The campaign to recall Dauber was spearheaded by Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law school. She said to CNN, “Many victims of sexual violence are subjected to the same terrible treatment by courts and universities that Ms. Miller experienced.” Dauber is right, sexual assault in a university setting is mismanaged on every level.


University students can hold their schools accountable for mismanaging reported sexual assault. Legally, universities have to have a Title IX office and coordinator. However, coordinators have dozens of hoops to jump through to care for a survivor. If survivors report to the university instead of the police, cases can be silenced to protect the future of the aggressor. We can do better than responding to sexual violence: we can advocate for it to never happen in the first place. We can start with advocating for clear, enthusiastic, sober consent amongst our friends and peers. We can also support programs and initiatives for safer sex, healthy relationships, and a more cooperative and survivor-focused framework to sexual assault and rape.


We can show up for survivors. We can read Chanel Miller’s book, engage with her narrative, and hear her story. We can vote out sexism and vote in judges, alderpeople, mayors, and congresspeople that advocate for survivors. 


We can heal. 

Founder and former Campus Correspondent for the Her Campus chapter at Saint Louis University. Graduating in May 2020 with degrees in Public Health and Women's and Gender Studies. Committed to learning about and spreading awareness for a more self-aware public health field, intersectional feminism, and college radio. Retweet this bio and enter a drawing for a free smartphone!
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