In March, former Stanford University student Brock Turner was found guilty of three felony sex abuse charges after two men caught him sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. Though a jury of twelve people unanimously convicted Turner, he was sentenced to only six months of county jail and probation earlier this month. The leniency shown by the probation officer and trial judge sparked a blaze of public outrage. At the same time, a letter written by the survivor, and addressed to Turner in court, launched a wave of support for her and other survivors – including a letter to the anonymous survivor from Vice President Joe Biden.
As a physician and human rights advocate, I work with medical and legal colleagues to end impunity for sexual violence in areas of conflict and unrest – specifically in East and Central Africa. There, I am part of efforts to train other medical, mental health, law enforcement, legal, and judicial professionals on how to collect, document, process, and evaluate forensic evidence of sexual violence. I also work with partners here in the US and overseas on advocacy efforts to eliminate barriers to care and justice for sexual violence survivors, such as resource limitations, harmful attitudes and beliefs about survivors and sexual violence, poor cooperation within the medical and legal sectors, and corruption.
There is a lot to be angry about in the California case. The burden of evidence exceeded that of most sexual assault cases, so it should have been relatively easier to hold the perpetrator accountable. There were witnesses to the crime, physical evidence of the attack, and the victim was unconscious and therefore clearly unable to provide consent. Nonetheless, in court, she was interrogated about her personal history, her outfit, an earlier dinner with her family, and her relationship with her boyfriend – matters that are completely irrelevant when deciding whether a sexual assault has occurred. In his ruling, the trial judge appeared to empathize with the perpetrator more than he did with the survivor.
Despite all she has lived through – including re-victimization during court proceedings and posttraumatic symptoms such as constant fear, hypervigilance, sleeplessness, anger, and a loss of confidence – in her letter, she described how she was able to find “courage in vulnerability.”
The survivor’s tremendous courage and resilience reflect what I have witnessed in other survivors of sexual violence and torture – an extraordinary physical and emotional recovery after extreme trauma, known in medicine as the “Phoenix Effect.” But the Phoenix Effect doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is made possible through what I call “Phoenix Zones” – places that nurture the kind of resilience that makes courage in vulnerability possible.
As I have learned through my work with trauma survivors, an individual’s capacity for resilience and for finding strength in vulnerability depends on the extent to which certain social, cultural, political, and legal constructs adhere to an ideal set of principles often at work in Phoenix Zones. These principles include respect for personal sovereignty, the promotion of justice, and a belief that each individual is worthy of dignity. These principles are violated in sexual violence, which is one reason that upholding these values in the recovery process can help survivors heal.
All of us need to help create Phoenix Zones where survivors can heal. We can do this in our everyday lives, and by advocating for policy changes that respect the rights of survivors. Survivors deserve validation, support, compassion, and empathy from each of us, as individuals, and from our judicial system. We need trial processes free of bias and corruption, attention to the crime rather than the survivor’s personal history, and elimination of individual and systemic barriers to care and justice. Though the path to recovery is often long and difficult, all of these issues are critical to nurturing resilience among survivors.
It is also possible that, by infusing principles such as respect for personal sovereignty, dignity, and justice more deeply in society, we could see broader social change. Perhaps we could even prevent crimes like rape by dismantling cultural forces and factors that normalize sexual violence.