In August of last year, 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich passed out after having too much to drink at a party, in a demonstration of the kind of youthful poor judgment that few manage to escape their teens without exhibiting at least once.
Unfortunately, in Savannah’s case, while she was unconscious, two other teenage boys present at the get-together -- boys that she knew -- decided to sexually assault her, and to photograph the incident -- photographs they would later share with friends.
Savannah only learned of the photographs months later, at which point she felt understandably humiliated and horrified. Still, she pressed charges.
However, when Savannah’s day in court arrived, she learned moments before it was announced in the courtroom that her assailants had taken a plea bargain. The exact parameters of the plea are sealed, although the deal meant both boys plead guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism, and Savannah was legally obligated not to discuss not only the details of the case, but not to discuss the crime itself in future.
This last was too much, and Savannah Dietrich wasn’t having it. In her anger she took to Twitter, where she publicly shared the names of her attackers, adding, “"There you go, lock me up... I'm not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.” Although Savannah was still legally bound from speaking specifically about the deal’s details, she also told a Kentucky newspaper, “"[The assailants] got off very easy ... and [the court] tells me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end," and, in case we weren't all already in awe of her badassery: "I'm at the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it."
While keeping the suggested sentence quiet makes sense, it does seem unreasonable to go further and require the victim of the crime -- a crime, we should remember, to which these two teens pleaded guilty -- to abstain from discussing these events with anyone, especially considering this is an attack that has affected her deeply on an emotional and social level, and one that has already been shared in her community via the photographs taken. Telling Savannah to keep quiet effectively gives her attackers the last word, as it prevents her from responding to the pictures and the event as it has been portrayed by them -- it chokes her out from telling her own story, and it lets the understanding of events be controlled by those guilty of the crime.
A few experts have expressed sympathy for Savannah’s situation, while also asserting she went about redressing it the wrong way:
David Marburger, an Ohio media law specialist, said even if the judge is limiting freedom of speech with an order, “it doesn’t necessarily free you from that order. You have to respect the order and get the judge to vacate the order or get a higher court to restrain the judge from enforcing the order.”
Jo Ann Phillips, who heads Kentuckians Voice for Crime Victims, said [...] “This (assault) could affect her for the rest of her life and the fact that she said, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’ you have to applaud her... But you also have to respect authority.
“ ... She should have gone to a victims’ group or her local legislator and fought for the right to speak out.”
Sure, Savannah could have done that. But to her credit, it’s unlikely following proper channels would have drawn the same degrees of public support and outrage gained by using social media to make her point on her own terms.
Savannah is an aberration in a world in which most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, for any number of reasons, from the cultural shame unfairly forced upon survivors, to fears of retribution should the court case against the attacker not succeed, and it's extremely rare to get a conviction in rape. According to statistics compiled by RAINN, 54 percent of rapes are never reported to authorities. Out of every 100 rapes, 9 are prosecuted and 5 are convicted. Given these odds, it’s understandable why many victims would prefer not to put themselves out there as targets, with no little chances of getting an appropriate punishment for their assailants.
Savannah’s case is unusual in that there was photographic evidence of her assault, but in many situations rape charges come down to the word of one person against another, and if the accuser has led anything less than the morally pure, churchgoing, unblemished life of a saint, the odds are against a jury taking their side.
In Kentucky, where this particular incident took place, juvenile court is closed to the media in the interest of protecting the identities of those involved. Savannah Dietrich and her family have rejected privacy in favor of speaking out, and as a result, just in the past few days, she has come to represent a powerful role model for victims to find the courage to call out their attackers.
Savannah will be facing a contempt hearing for violating the terms of the plea; and if there was any lingering doubt about Savannah’s conviction, she has consented to allowing the media inside the courtroom for this hearing, although it is unlikely the attorneys for her two attackers will do the same.
There are a number of online petitions seeking to have the contempt charges against Savannah dropped and the terms of the plea amended to allow her to speak up about this crime, and her attackers. Given that so many sexual assault survivors struggle with keeping their assault a secret, Savannah has, possibly unwittingly, become a new torchbearer for making these experiences known and public, and thereby to destigmatize them. It’s true that there are many cases in which calling out the perpetrators of these crimes is not safe for the survivors owing to a multitude of complicating factors, but when even a few people like Savannah speak up, that act chips away at the shame and the fear.
Ultimately, someday, the victims of sexual assault should not be the ones who need to hide.
UPDATE: As of Monday evening, the contempt charges against Savannah have been dropped.