As 13M People Read Stanford Victim's Letter, Advocates See "Watershed" Moment in Fight Against Rape

StoryJune 09, 2016
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Amy Ziering

filmmaker behind The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. She is the co-author of the new book by the same name.

Kamila Willingham

Harvard Law School graduate who says she was sexually assaulted while unconscious by a fellow Harvard Law School student in January 2011. She’s now a writer, speaker and anti-violence activist.

More than 60,000 people have signed a petition calling for Stanford University to apologize publicly to the woman who was raped on campus last year by a Stanford University swimmer. The case made national news this month when a judge ordered the rapist Brock Allen Turner to just six months in jail even though he was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. A Stanford law professor has launched an effort to recall Judge Aaron Persky, who quietly began a new six-year term this week. Separately, more than 800,000 people have signed a petition to remove the judge. The victim’s powerful letter to her attacker has been viewed more than 13 million times online. "You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today," she wrote in the letter, addressing her rapist directly. "You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself." Stanford is also facing criticism for its handling of sexual abuse on campus. A new report by The Daily Beast found that the university reported 26 rapes on campus in 2012, 2013 and 2014. That’s one sexual assault every two weeks for three years. We talk about the Stanford case and how the problem extends far beyond Stanford with Amy Ziering, filmmaker of "The Hunting Ground," a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, and Kamilah Willingham, one of the film’s subjects. Willingham says she was sexually assaulted while unconscious by a fellow Harvard Law School student in 2011.

NEXTDebate: Is Recalling Judge Persky a Victory for Sexual Assault Survivors or a Dangerous Precedent?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Lady Gaga performing "Til It Happens to You" at the Oscars in February, a song from the documentary The Hunting Ground. She was joined on stage by dozens of survivors, who had phrases like "not alone" and "not your fault" written on their arms. Lady Gaga herself is a sexual assault survivor. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, more than 60,000 people have signed a student petition calling for Stanford University to publicly apologize to the woman who was raped on campus last year by a Stanford University swimmer. The case made national news this month when a judge sentenced the rapist, Brock Allen Turner, to just six months in jail, even though he was caught by two witnesses sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Efforts are underway to recall Judge Aaron Persky, who quietly began a new six-year term this week. Brock Turner’s father has fueled the outrage by complaining his son’s life has been ruined for what he called, quote, "20 minutes of action." The victim wrote a powerful letter to her attacker, which has been viewed more than 10 million times online.

Meanwhile, a report by The Daily Beast found that the rape was not an isolated event. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Stanford reported 26 rapes a year on campus in 2012, 2013 and 2014. That’s a rape case every two weeks for three years. The actual number of rapes on campus is believed to be far higher, since most go unreported.

AMY GOODMAN: But the problem is not just at Stanford. We spend the rest of the hour looking at the groundbreaking documentary The Hunting Ground, which examines the handling of sexual assault on college campuses across the country. In a moment we’ll be joined by the film’s director as well as a victim profiled in the film, but first the film’s trailer.

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I got a call from the dean of admissions asking, "If you were to get into Harvard, would you accept?" And I said yes, because I knew my mom would kill me if I said anything else.

UNIDENTIFIED: The first few weeks, I made some of my best friends. But two of us were sexually assaulted before classes had even started.

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I went to the Dean of Students’ Office, and she said, "I just want to make sure that you don’t talk to anyone about this."

CAROLINE HELDMAN: They protect perpetrators because they have a financial incentive to do so.

UNIDENTIFIED: Problem of sexual assault on campuses is enormous.

UNIDENTIFIED: I think it’s fair to say that they cover these crimes up. There’s a lot of victim blaming.

UNIDENTIFIED: He lectured us about how we shouldn’t go out in short skirts.

UNIDENTIFIED: They told me, despite the fact that I had a written admission of guilt that I presented to them, it could only prove that he loved me.

UNIDENTIFIED: They discourage them from going to the police. If it goes to the police, then it’s more likely to end up as a public record.

UNIDENTIFIED: Universities are protecting a brand.

UNIDENTIFIED: Campus police cannot contact an athlete.

DON McPHERSON: He won the Heisman Trophy with his DNA in a rape kit.

DAVID LISAK: Just sit down with the students and ask them, "Where are the hotspots?"

UNIDENTIFIED: SAE, sexual assault expected.

UNIDENTIFIED: The second most common type of insurance claim against the paternity industry is for rape.

CAROLINE HELDMAN: Her rapist’s name matched the name of two other cases, and he was allowed back on campus.

UNIDENTIFIED: The message is clear: You’re not going to win.

UNIDENTIFIED: We started seeing, you know, what was happening at campuses across the country.



UNIDENTIFIED: Why has no one connected the dots before?

UNIDENTIFIED: These students went from sexual assault victims to survivors and now activists.

CAROLYN LUBY: My name is Carolyn Luby.

ALEXA SCHWARTZ: My name is Alexa Schwartz.

ARI MOSTOV: My name is Ari Mostov.

UNIDENTIFIED: This is a national problem.

UNIDENTIFIED: We are fed up!

UNIDENTIFIED: I was getting threatened. It was working in their favor to silence me, and I was terrified.

UNIDENTIFIED: I thought if I told them, they would take action, but the only action they took was against me.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve got a lot further to go.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer to the documentary The Hunting Ground. We’re joined now by Amy Ziering, who produced the film. She’s also co-author of the new book by the same title. And we’re joined by Kamilah Willingham, a Harvard Law School graduate who says she was sexually assaulted while unconscious by a fellow Harvard Law School student in 2011. She’s now a writer, speaker and anti-violence activist.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kamilah is one of the people featured in Amy Ziering’s film. But, Amy, first, on the Stanford rape case, can you talk about the significance of what took place in that courtroom, a judge sentencing a convicted rapist, who was found guilty on three felony counts, to six months in the county jail, not in prison—with good behavior, he could get out in 90 days?

AMY ZIERING: Yeah, no, what’s happened and what we’re witnessing is really a watershed pivotal moment, because what happened in that courtroom was the victim of these egregious crimes read this incredible letter that she had written to explain to the judge what she had not only gone through during the assault, but in its brutal aftermath and having to cope with that kind of trauma. And, you know, Michele Dauber, who’s a Stanford law professor, was in the courtroom at the time and heard the letter and texted to me and said, "You have to read this." And I read it, and I texted her back and said, "Oh, my god." And she said, "Let’s get this out." And so, you know, I called a BuzzFeed reporter who I respect a lot, Katie Baker, who’s reported on this issue in a really great way, and said, "You have to read this. Can you read this right away?" And she did. And she got it to the editors, and they put it up online. And it’s exploded in this viral way, which is, I think—you know, I think we all should stop and go, oh, this is a wonderful moment for the movement, because all of—


AMY ZIERING: —all of America now is—you know, I think it’s now 13 million people have read the letter, and there’s just been this outpouring of support for survivors and outrage about, you know, the way these crimes are treated with ubiquity in this country, and especially on college campuses, which is to not—to ignore them and not do anything to prosecute the people perpetrating them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kamilah Willingham, you also were a victim at another elite university.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your reaction to what you heard about the Stanford situation?

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: It was a really sad reminder of what I went through and what so many other people go through. And really, one of—I guess the silver lining to how much attention this case is getting is that it points out the flaws in our laws and our legal systems. We tell victims that they need to come forward because rape is unreported, and we act as if, if more people reported the crimes, went to the police, then that would somehow fix things, as if it’s our duty. But then you look at what happened in the Stanford case. And this is a best-case outcome. She got farther than most victims do get in the system. Most rapists never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a jailhouse or a prison. And even still, she’s treated in this way. And it’s similar to what I found when I was going through the criminal process, where it almost felt like it wasn’t even a question of whether I was believed, but whether I was valued enough that what was done to me was worth its consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean. Explain what happened, Kamilah.

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I was sexually assaulted by a friend and classmate. He actually assaulted me and another girl on the same night. And it was, you know, a typical night of drinking. He was the nice guy who offered to help me take care of my drunk friend. And next thing you know, I wake up, my drunk friend has been undressed, and he’s trying to penetrate me. So I woke up to this kind of assault. And he took credit for it. We wouldn’t have gone to the police if we didn’t have text messages from him confirming what we thought had happened. So, it wasn’t even—to me, it didn’t feel like it was my word against his. And again, we had more evidence than most cases do. I reported it to the police and my school. The school, after an extensive investigation, found him responsible. And then, somehow, after I left the school, the faculty voted on whether to uphold the sanction, and reversed the decision without informing me. At the same time, we went through a lengthy criminal trial process. And of the six felony charges that the prosecutor attempted to bring against him, he was charged with three and found guilty of a lesser included offense of one, which was a misdemeanor assault. He got probation.

And then 19 of my Harvard law professors publicly defended him and did much of what we see happening in this case, bringing the attention to the perpetrator as the, quote-unquote, "real victim" in this case. The pain that he suffered, his reputation, his life being on hold during trial is really what they were outraged about, even though it was caused by his own predatory actions. And the pain that my friend and I, who were sexually assaulted, suffered is secondary. You know, we’re treated as if all of this is because of us, because we spoke out, not because somebody thought it was OK to force himself on incapacitated women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kamilah Willingham, you mentioned those Harvard professors. In November of 2015, when The Hunting Ground aired on CNN, 19 of those Harvard professors published a statement attacking the film’s portrayal of your case.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: They wrote, quote, "There was never any evidence that Mr. Winston used force, nor were there even any charges that he used force. No evidence whatsoever was introduced at trial that he was the one responsible for the inebriated state of the women who are portrayed in the film as his victims. ... We believe that Brandon Winston was subjected to a long, harmful ordeal for no good reason. Justice has been served in the end, but at enormous costs to this young man. We denounce this film as prolonging his ordeal with its unfair and misleading portrayal of the facts of his case." That’s what the professors wrote. Your response?

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I have several responses. One, if they watched the film and actually reviewed the case that they weighed in on, they would see that there was no allegation of force. The entire point was that we were unconscious. No force was required to dominate us while we were unconscious. And the second point that all of this was caused, or all of—yeah, all of his hardship was caused for no good reason, again, it’s a question of whether what he did to us is worth the consequences. And the consequences for him, his life being derailed? So was mine. I was also a young black promising law student, and my future was entirely thrown up into the air because of what he did.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Amy Ziering about this, which was both an attack on Kamilah and on the film, the response that you got to this film, because, I mean, you did a previous film, which got enormous attention, and the difference in these two films, that dealt with sexual assault in the military.

AMY ZIERING: Well, Invisible War was the first film Kirby Dick and I made on this issue, and it broke the story of the epidemic of rape in our military. And like you said, Amy, it was resoundingly embraced and, you know—and not challenged, you know, sort of accepted. And what I really give the Pentagon credit for is that they saw the film as a critique, not an attack, and they started using it as a training tool on bases. They said, "Oh, my god, we have a problem, we really have to take care of it."

And what’s so interesting is that the reception to The Hunting Ground was much more like what you see—you know, what we’ve seen played out with the Stanford case, not post-letter, but pre-letter, in that the focus and the concern was more on—was sort of questioning and challenging, "Oh, is this really going on? Is there really an epidemic? Could this be true?" as opposed to saying, "Oh, well, thank you for pointing this out, and let’s go take care of it." You know, there’s just a difference in leadership that we’re seeing on campuses. You know, where is—as you said, where is the letter of apology from Stanford for this happening? Why, you know, actually, in the last 10 years, has there not even been—I think there’s only been one expulsion at Stanford for any of the assaults, of all the numbers that you just said were happening. So, you know, there is this kind of real unwillingness we’re seeing still, which I’m hoping that this letter will now shift, and this will be a change, and everyone will say, you know, "We need to do better. We need to protect our students better."

But I also want to go back and say two things about that long piece—

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly. We have 20 seconds.

AMY ZIERING: OK—read by the law professors. There’s not one factual error in our film. There actually was textual evidence that he had assaulted Kamilah. And so, you know, their letter is rife with errors. And please go to our website, and we can explain how that is. But, you know, it’s just unconscionable that they use their platform to critique someone in this way. And really—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation and post it online at Amy Ziering, the filmmaker behind The Hunting Ground, and Kamilah Willingham, student at Harvard Law School when she and a friend were sexually assaulted by an acquaintance.

That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking June 11th, Saturday, in Chicago at Jones College Prep.

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Debate: Is Recalling Judge Persky a Victory for Sexual Assault Survivors or a Dangerous Precedent?

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