In eager anticipation of the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, I recently binged the entire series once again. I’ve long been drawn to the show’s rare commitment to depicting women’s diverse experiences with nuance and compassion. More radically still, OITNB narratives have tackled numerous systems of power and oppression, as well as the ways that they function within and through the criminal justice system itself. Repeatedly critiquing and subverting whose stories matter through its egalitarian distribution of flashbacks amongst major and minor characters, inmates, and prison staff, the show’s storylines have taken on racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious fundamentalism, corporate greed, nationalism, and police brutality. Revisiting the series in the wake of the media storm surrounding the leniency of Brock Turner’s sentence, I was struck with stunning force by one plot in particular: the rape narrative that develops across the third and fourth seasons.
With increasing discomfort, we observe the new guard Coates’s chillingly abrupt assertions of dominance over the prisoner with whom he shares van duty—Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett—montaged with the past experiences of misogyny, abuse, and sexual assault that render these moments inevitable in her eyes. We watch as the rape unfolds, directly meeting the dead-eyed stare of someone who has long since learned to stop fighting, who has been taught from childhood by the words of her own mother that pain is the price of inhabiting a female body: “Best thing is to go on and let the boys do their business, baby. If you’re real lucky, most of ‘em be quick, like your daddy. It’s like a bee sting, in and out.” We listen as Big Boo’s no-fucks-left feminism and Pennsatucky’s internalized misogyny fiercely battle each other through one of the most poignant (and unlikely) friendships at Litchfield. We hold our breaths with an acute sense that these ideological stances hold the cost of these women’s lives in their balance. We cheer as Big Boo’s efforts to convince her friend of Coates’s culpability break through—our assumption being, of course, that Pennsatucky’s path to justice lies in her rejection of self-blame in favor of righteous indignation.
But as she moves rapidly from accepting her rape’s unacceptability to resigning herself to its unhindered repetition, we are forced to realize that even no-fucks-left feminism has its own limits within systems of power and patriarchy—that, as Pennsatucky so succinctly puts it, “I get fucked and now I’m screwed.” That naming the crime, often an agonizing struggle in its own right, rarely leads to rapists doing the time. Even living as she does in the concrete manifestation of the justice system, she has no access to it. In her utter lack of recourse—as both a woman and a prisoner—to a justice that so often hinges on the biases of belief, Pennsatucky, like the 66% of survivors who never report their assaults, must seek survival, safety, and solace through her own strength and through the support of others alienated by the same systemic inequity. Unlike most real-life survivors, however, her ultimate plan for vigilante justice, endorsed by Big Boo and ultimately by the popular culture trope of the rape revenged, manifests itself in a violent fantasy: “We’re gonna go full-on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on his ass.”
This eye-for-an-eye, rape-for-a-rape narrative that haunts fictionalized sexual assault survivors has become so recognizable that a mere reference suffices to convey the entire weight of its cultural legacy. From television shows like Orange Is the New Black, Jessica Jones, and Game of Thrones, to the novels of Stieg Larsson and Margaret Atwood, the rape survivor’s recourse to vigilante methods of justice and revenge varies widely in circumstantial particularity and execution. Pennsatucky and Big Boo plan to drug Coates and sodomize him with a broomstick handle in the laundry room—their inspiration, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander, who mercilessly re-enacts every detail of her own brutal rape on the body of her torturer. Similarly, in a recent episode of Game of Thrones, Sansa triumphantly stalks away, smirking as she hears the screams of her rapist being torn apart by his own dogs. Verna, the femme fatale protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s 2014 Stone Mattress, waits fifty years to stab her assaulter to death with the most phallic object she can find, a stalactite found in a cave during a cruise excursion. These acts of retribution emerge as equal parts disturbingly grotesque and dangerously satisfying.
This satisfaction stems from the resolution of an anxiety already deeply ingrained in survivors of sexual assault—that when it comes to the legal system, the odds are never in their favor and the process often renders them powerless once again. The accusation of a prisoner matters little when weighed against the denials of her guard. The word of the alcoholic and traumatized Jessica Jones holds no sway against the charisma of the wealthy and supernaturally powerful Kilgrave. Lisbeth’s torture is nothing against the probation officer who threatens to label her delusional and emotionally troubled. And, perhaps the most frighteningly familiar in 2016, in Atwood’s story, the rape of a high school girl can be overlooked by an entire community when committed by a talented and idolized athlete. At the heart of all these variations lies the fundamental, too-often confirmed fear that when it comes to the judiciary system, many rapists are treated as untouchable. And beyond this fear, the burning, too-often unfulfilled desire to make those who would dismiss a vicious crime as “a mere twenty minutes of action” see a truth that should be self-evident: Where there is rape there is pain and power, violence and violation.
In these stories, the resolution of these fears and desires often means reclaiming power through enacting further pain and violation. Yet, this form of satisfaction contains a hollow promise of justice, one that echoes back the very cycles of violence that created the gaping need for closure in the first place. We hear them when, even as we collectively shout “No one ever deserves rape,” we find the top comments on the rare cases of conviction to be iterations of “At least this piece of shit will get a taste of his own medicine in prison.” How much more hollow this consolation sounds when a fellow prisoner tells Pennsatucky, “Who’s going to believe you? We’re liars and degenerates and we deserve everything that happens to us.” How much more radical it seems for a character framed throughout the episode as the uneducated voice of rape culture to break the cycles perpetuated by it. For a criminal to declare that she “ain’t a rapist”—to ultimately reject Big Boo’s proposed plan—turns an entire tradition that conflates vengeance and justice on its head. Now that’s true poetic justice.
As we see in the new season, the poetry of the situation lingers while the justice still eludes. Even after the revenge fantasy plot is exposed as inadequate in season three, another milder, albeit equally tantalizing fantasy takes its place: that the craving for accountability might be satiated by merely explaining the lived horror to one’s rapist, that words alone are effective weapons against abuse. Concerned for the safety of Maritza, the prisoner who replaces her own van duty, Pennsatucky quietly confronts Coates with his crime, explaining, “I just want to make sure you’re not raping her, is all.” Coates, stunned by the accusation and by Pennsatucky’s subsequent declaration that he raped her, attempts to deny it, declaring, “I said I love you. It’s different.” To which the heartbreaking final reply is, “It didn’t feel different.”
As revolutionary as it is to hear her firmly reject his plea for intention as means to erase the violence she experienced, it doesn’t change the fact that her safety remains at the whim of his remorse. Even though her forgiveness has granted her the power of personal peace, she’s still at the mercy of a man who retains a position of complete power over her, as a tense scene in the final episode makes explicit. The viewer is left with the image of Coates pressed up against a visibly shaken Pennsatucky, whispering “It’s taking everything I have right now not to throw you on the floor and fuck you right now.” If the plot of OINTB overwhelmingly suggests that anger and violence will not save you, the biting ambiguity of its final note implies that forgiveness might not be enough either.
The anxiety provoked by trials of errors and failures of justice, the persistent thirst for the acknowledgment of violence, the concept of poetry without justice are all painfully familiar to those who’ve read the Stanford survivor’s viral letter. She asks not for vengeance, but merely for her rapist’s accountability for his actions and his acceptance of his crime: “I told the probation officer I do not want Brock to rot away in prison. I did not say he does not deserve to be behind bars… what I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing.” If anyone could have moved Judge Aaron Persky to empathize with the victim more than the criminal or moved a remorseless sociopath to the brink of remorse with the sheer force of her words, it would have been this woman.
Yet words, no matter how much eloquence and clarity they afford, are often only as powerful as those whom they reach. Despite the tireless efforts of those who advocate for survivors and the innumerable positive changes activists have wrought over the past few decades, some people still cannot be reached by the words of a woman enumerating the physical and psychological tolls of her assault. Where does one turn when those in power seem unreachable—when police officers persist in asking what we were wearing, when countless rape kits are thrown away untested, when judges insist that convicted rapists will not be “a danger to anyone”? How does one seek safety and support, finally, when the system fails, violence is not the answer, and forgiveness cannot save you?
Increasingly, survivors have found recourse in online vigilantism. Often, this takes the form of seeking support, spreading awareness and education, having one’s story heard. Tumblrs such as Project Unbreakable, I Believe You It’s Not Your Fault, and countless others have provided forums of solidarity for survivors—particularly those who wish to remain anonymous, and for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to pursue prosecution. But in the age of viral media, the voices of those who have chosen to pursue charges have also found a means of magnification beyond the systems that refuse to hear them.
Although the Stanford survivor’s words seemingly had no impact in the court that heard her case, they have reached the “girls everywhere” for whom she “fought everyday” and there found a rallying reply. Her hope that “this will wake people up” has not gone unanswered. Friends who never quite fundamentally understood why most survivors don’t report their assaults or pursue trials now dimly perceive the complex web of injustices at play here—the privilege of race, gender, class, and status perpetuated by the legal system and its sentencing, albeit with a level of shock not granted to those who have viscerally felt it all along. There’s a sigh of relief, followed by a knot of frustration that such relief from quiet indifference and well-meaning ignorance is rare enough to constitute an occasion of celebration. There’s an aching sense that the price of public understanding is so perpetually high to pay and that it’s always at the expense of those who have already suffered so much.
But it’s important to acknowledge—especially in the face of progress that seems so agonizingly glacial—that Emily Doe’s words have already had an astronomical impact. The number of people who have asked in the aftermath “if this woman can’t get justice, who can?” is in itself a small, sad victory of empathy, one that renders survivors’ struggles visible and their impossible decisions slightly less unfathomable. If a case so close to the traditional danger-lurking-in-a-back-alley rape narrative—an unconscious woman sexually assaulted behind a dumpster—and so evidentially backed by two witnesses and medical evidence gathered within the tiny window of possibility, can end like this, what hope does that leave for those who in any way stray from that script? What does this say about the kind of “justice” other survivors can expect? Members of the LBQT community, straight men, veterans, prisoners, children who only find their voices as adults, those assaulted by people whom they know and love, those assaulted without a witness? As horrifying as this case was, one would expect it to be the rare one that prompted serious consequences for the rapist.
Instead, it’s the tip of the iceberg of the multitude of cases that never do. In fact, as I sat down at my laptop this morning to apply some final edits to this piece, I was greeted by the mugshot of one John Enochs, a former student of Indiana University-Bloomington. Two counts of rape, one day spent in jail, sentenced to one year of probation. Due to his plea of “battery,” the effects of which include lacerations on one victim’s genitals and his DNA found in the vagina of the other, he will not even have to register as a sex offender. He’s just another ghostly white mugshot, another rapist virtually immune to legal consequence. At what point does resemblance cease to feel uncanny and instead acquire the weary sense of an expectation fulfilled?
The Brock Turner case infuriates me deeply. Not because it is in any way anomalous, but precisely because it epitomizes the daily injustices that have kept survivors silent. The Stanford’s survivor’s letter moves me inexpressibly. Not because it’s an unfamiliar story, but because it’s a tale as old as time, one I’ve known since my own childhood.
In an old mythology anthology, I learned the name Philomela, a Greek princess raped by her sister’s husband. Afterwards, he cut out her tongue to prevent her from speaking and hid her away, claiming that she was dead. So she wove a tapestry depicting the scene and sent it out into the world so that her sister would know.
There are many ways I might use her story to make some sort of summarizing point now.
When those in power stifle the voices of survivors, they find other ways of expressing their truths.
After so much enforced silence, the very act of telling your story becomes a talisman of salvation.
At the end of the day, all we have left is our words, our outrage, our solidarity.
All undoubtedly true. But the truth is what I see now—with Pennsatucky’s story fresh in my mind and the Stanford survivor’s words ringing in my head—is how unspeakably sad it is that these pithy allegories of endurance in the face of obstructed justice mean the same essential things now as they did centuries ago. I am exhausted, down to the marrow, by the search for small, sad, belated victories to celebrate. But continue to celebrate them we must.
There are many who critique the rise of “online vigilantism,” like the Stanford survivor’s letter, and enumerate the dangers of not letting the criminal justice system function properly. While acknowledging the inevitable limitations of such recourse, as well as the limitations of my own legal knowledge, I must continue to ask these critics: for whom exactly do you think the criminal justice system is functioning properly? Expecting survivors to find personal peace in the absence of systemic transformation is like pressing on a fresh bruise (if not an open wound) over and over all the while demanding that it just heal already.
Yet survivors find ways to make waves. The fact of the matter is this woman’s words have accomplished more towards ensuring justice for survivors than the judge and the probation officer placed in positions of power within the court. BuzzFeed, the home of gif listicles and tweet compilations, has become an outlet of vigilante justice. Through its online publication of her letter, her words have found their way into the Congressional record, united senators across party lines in efforts to overturn the sentence in appeals court, inspired an open letter of solidarity from the Vice President of the United States, sparked a change.org petition to recall Judge Aaron Persky that has garnered over a million signatures, and resulted in the DA Office’s removal of Persky from another upcoming sexual assault case involving an unconscious woman. Perhaps most remarkably of all, they have prompted legislators to closely examine the loopholes within California definition of sexual assault.
As bizarre and unromantic as it sounds, online platforms have become the tapestry through which we weave our silenced stories. It’s the one that has led others to the places where we are hidden. And until we create from it a world in which our most effective means of justice might finally be the system designated to uphold it, we weave on.