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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Cardinal View: Campus sexual assault survivors deprived of justice

Recent legal outcomes continue to reveal systematic inability to believe survivors, trust women

Two sexual assaults reported at UW-Madison ended in injustice this month. Nathan Friar will serve eight years of probation for a second-degree sexual assault he was convicted of, and no jail time. Nicholas Ralston was found not guilty of third-degree sexual assault, despite sending a text stating, “...I sexually assaulted [the victim] last night…”

It’s common for editorials or campaigns speaking out against sexual assault to open with statistics. The numbers often include, but are not limited to: every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Or only an estimated six out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. Perhaps they include that 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police or that the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent, that 91 percent of the survivors of rape and sexual assault are women, that more than one in four female undergraduates at UW-Madison were sexually assaulted during their time here.

The hope, in the use of these statistics, is that we will be forced to confront a reality—an epidemic so widespread, a culture so sickening—and be moved by it. The hope is that the numbers will evoke logic and the logic will evoke empathy, until we eradicate the elements of our society that allow this devastating pattern to continue. However, there’s a time when we have to ask ourselves, is the cold reality of these statistics having an impact in a culture void of logic?

The legal system as a whole repeatedly fails, favoring patriarchy over rational thought—these cases are no different. These two cases and the justice system at large in regard to sexual assault were not built on a basis of logic and empathy; they were built of a foundation of disproving the legitimacy of survivors. They were built on our collective cultural inability to trust survivors, to trust women.

In the course of a month, both cases—among an ongoing history of similar cases—provided gut-wrenching answers to fundamental questions. In the case of Nathan Friar: How seriously do we take the crime of rape? How seriously do we punish it? In the case of Nicholas Ralston: Do we believe perpetrators? Or do we believe survivors?

Friar’s defense—the one that presumably allowed him, a rapist, to walk free of jail time—was one built almost entirely on victim-blaming, even in the aftermath of her assault. Even after the survivor attested to the immense degree of anxiety she experienced following the trauma, Friar’s attorney Brian Brophy countered that her “very active” presence on social media proved the survivor appeared to be doing “great.” Based on the lack of severity in Friar’s punishment, the ruling sympathized with a rapist’s lawyer’s interpretation of the survivor’s social media account more than sympathizing with the survivor herself. Despite all logic, they did not believe the survivor.

Although they did find Friar guilty of sexual assault, the jury cleared his strangulation charges under the argument that the marks on her neck could potentially be hickies instead of bruises. This was after the survivor’s report that Friar had strangled her. Again, despite all logic, they did not believe the survivor.

Ralston’s defense—the one that let him walk away without consequence—was founded solely on a premise of not trusting the survivor. Even after a clear confession via text message, the jury chose to believe Ralston’s claim that his own confession was wrong, stating the survivor falsely convinced him that he had assaulted her. Despite all logic and a clear confession, they did not believe the survivor.

When Ralston’s attorney Adam Welch claimed his client’s confession was a product of the survivor’s manipulation, he argued: “Nick trusted [the survivor] and believed her ... That’s not a confession. It’s good character.”

There’s a glaring double standard and a stomach-turning irony in Welch’s statement. If trusting and believing a survivor was an emblem of good character, it most certainly did not appear among the jury by the same standards the jury applied it to Ralston.

How many more women will it take? How many bodies violated? How many more survivors traumatized? How many more people waking up at night in a cold sweat for the rest of their lives? What will it take until we finally believe survivors? It’s “good character” to believe survivors, after all.

To survivors: We believe you. The justice system and the society that upholds it may not support you, but there are people who do. Do whatever it takes to care for yourself. Your self-preservation alone is radical in a system that fails to preserve you.

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To advocates facing a void of logic and empathy at every turn: Do not let your voice shake as you continue to scream directly into said void. Remember the statistics, even when it feels pointless. Steer clear of apathy and keep speaking out against a system that fails time and time again, even when it feels like an impossible battle on all accounts.

We hope that logic and empathy will win over all; most of us believe it will. What the outcomes of these crimes that happened on our campus prove—what the outcomes of too many sexual assault cases prove—is that, in the case of sexual assault, empathy and logic do not matter. When it comes to believing the survivor, empathy and logic do not matter. So we’ll keep fighting until the day that they do.

Cardinal View editorials represent The Daily Cardinal's organizational opinion. Each editorial is crafted independent of news coverage. Please send all comments, questions and concerns to 

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