Savannah Dietrich and Silencing Survivors

[TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of rape and sexual assault ]

Surely the best way to handle rape survivors is to threaten them! I mean, we learned that here. Oh wait, no we didn’t. We actually learned that that’s a pretty terrible thing to do, so what’s going on with Savannah Dietrich?

Dietrich, a 17-year-old from Kentucky, popped up in the news last week when she named her rapists on Twitter after being ordered by a juvenile court judge to keep her mouth shut. Dietrich has allowed her name to be released to the public despite the no-names policy designed to protect victims and survivors. I applaud her for coming out strong about her story, because it’s absolutely appalling. After being raped by a group of boys, Dietrich learned that her rapists had posted photos of the assault online. Recently, she discovered in court that a plea bargain had been made for a lesser sentence, which she was unaware of before. Those involved with the case were then ordered not to speak about it. This understandably upset Dietrich, who took to Twitter to name her rapists and express frustration over the lenient sentencing.

A motion was filed by the attorneys of Dietrich’s attackers to charge her with contempt. The motion was dropped earlier this week, but the issue remains. This marks the second time in recent media coverage that a rape survivor has been threatened with legal action for exercising her right to speak or not speak. We often talk about how speaking out is the most powerful weapon we wield against sexual assault, but when we cannot use that weapon, what are we left with? Another fight, that’s what. We are left with a battle for our foremost right here in the United States, the freedom to speak our minds. They may not like what we have to say, but we have a right to say it. To gag those who have had their fundamental right to bodily autonomy stripped from them is disturbing and helps perpetuate the rape culture that we are all trapped in.

I understand that this was a juvenile court, but why do the “rights” of boys to not be named for what they are trump the rights of a girl, raped by those boys, to speak out? Why do we care about “ruining some poor boy’s life,” as the rhetoric typically goes, more than someone who has been assaulted? The heart of the answer, as usual, lies within patriarchy. The victim-blaming implicit in such ideas is reprehensible, this idea that the rapist must have been tricked into it, or she was asking for it, or he just couldn’t help himself because of that short skirt, is patriarchy at work. By silencing survivors and forbidding them from naming their rapists, we are absolutely placing the status of rapists (particularly those with privilege from gender, race, and/or class) above the status of victim.

And we wonder why survivors don’t speak out. We tell them to talk to people, to not “let them get away with it” (in itself a victim-blaming tactic), to come forward and be open. But here we see why that isn’t so easy, in its most extreme form. Some of us stay in the shadows because it will hurt more to speak up, because we can’t deal with the way people will look at us or the blaming and shame we will be subjected to. Now we have to worry about being locked up as well, while our rapists roam free and unpunished, calling us liars and whores.

This needs to change. This is a world that is toxic to women, to survivors and victims of assault, to marginalized groups. It is the silencing threats and tactics like the one used on Savannah Dietrich that strengthen that toxicity and make the world dangerous to any of us who have been victimized and any of us that may be victimized in the future. I’d like to urge everyone to speak out and stand up, but clearly it isn’t always that simple. Things need to change. They have to change, and stories like this make it clear why.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

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