Why Did the Emily Doe*/Brock Turner Rape Case Explode on Media? | Jenna Edra


Trigger warning: Sexual assault, rape

* News outlets have referred to the anonymous victim of this rape case as Emily Doe.


     I’m not done talking about this case and rape culture, and I hope you aren’t either.


     I ask this question not to criticize the national attention that this case deserved, but I ask it to challenge collective complacency in the face of regular news about sexual assault and to encourage action stimulated by critical thought.  


     The media picked up the story and, rightfully so, ran with it. The rape case trended on social media, became commonly known, and even inspired the passing of legislation that protects survivors of rape. But as someone who feels so strongly about combatting sexual violence, I questioned why some people didn’t apply the same outrage to all other cases of sexual assault. While the mainstream media plays a huge role in bringing events to the public’s consciousness and in shaping what society sees as “newsworthy,” many people don’t seem to circulate articles or talk about them when news about sexual assault does surface.


     Here are just three reasons why I believe the Emily Doe/Brock Turner rape case was both widely reported on by the media and circulated by the public:  


1) The anonymous letter


     Emily Doe’s 12-page open letter to her rapist has been described as powerful, raw, and personal. It was read by millions, including the U.S. House of Representatives and Vice President Joe Biden, who penned his own letter to the victim in response. A difficult but important read, the letter can make anyone feel sympathetic toward Doe and furious at Turner, Aaron Persky, and the broken judicial system.


     Just as much as the letter is emotionally impactful, it is descriptive, informative, and accessible to those who might be unaware of the experiences of sexual assault victims. It brings to light the traumatization of being raped and facing the “irreversible damage” in the aftermath.


     In addition, the anonymity of the letter protected the survivor’s identity and prevented people from accessing details of her life that could have been used against her in the form of victim-blaming. It also eliminates the projection of racism and other prejudiced beliefs onto the victim that could have detracted attention from the sexual assault itself. Would people have cared as much if Doe was Black? Transgender? Perhaps not. It’s necessary to consider intersectionality and the role it always plays in media coverage.


2) The 3-month jail sentence


     It’s not complicated: the three months of jail time that Turner received was a slap on the wrist. Galvanized by blatant injustice, people took to social media to voice their opinions and spread petitions, and to the streets to protest Turner and recall the Santa Clara County judge.     


     The irony is that Turner spent more time in jail than nearly all rapists ever will. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free.”


3) The “Stanford” clickbait

     As shorthand, the media referred to Doe as the “Stanford survivor/victim,” Turner as the “Stanford rapist.” It is possible that the media also intentionally capitalized on mentioning “Stanford” in headlines, turning it into a kind of clickbait. Bay Area people understood how this case was happening in (or near) their backyard, while anyone not native to this area could have still been intrigued by the juxtaposition of rape and criminal injustice beside a prestigious, world-renowned university.


     But all that glitters is not gold. According to the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, which centers around sexual assault on college campuses in the U.S., Stanford University has only expelled one student out of 259 reported cases of sexual assault from 1996 to 2013.



     I realize that sexual assault is a heavy topic that can be draining for anyone to read and talk about, and in no way do I expect survivors to follow the news about sexual assault at the expense of their mental and emotional wellbeing. But if you have the time, energy, and resources, I urge you to stay informed and outraged at the insidious epidemic of sexual violence. Don’t rely on mainstream media to be your moral compass; sexual assault, occurs every 2 minutes in the U.S. .  Each case demands your attention and support regardless of whether it trends online or not. Rape culture cannot be dismantled if we only show up to speak on the next “big” case.


     If you’re interested in supporting survivors and joining the fight against sexual violence, consider these action steps:

  • Educate yourself about sexual assault through personal research, re-post articles about sexual assault, and share what you know with others.   
    • See websites such as RAINN.org for statistics on sexual assault.
    • Watch The Hunting Ground, available on Netflix and iTunes.
  • Familiarize yourself with on and off campus resources for victims of sexual assault. Given the frequent and widespread nature of sexual assault, it’s probable that you know a survivor, even if they have not have come forward as a victim.
  • Volunteer at a local organization, such as Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) and YWCA Silicon Valley.
    • I currently volunteer at YWCA as a crisis line counselor. Feel free to contact me at jenna.edra@sjsu.edu if you would like more information about how the application process works, what volunteering has been like, etc.

     If you are a victim of sexual assault, see the links above to resources and services if needed. I echo the words of Emily Doe: “I am with you.”  


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