A line in the sand
I did not realize how much anxiety I was carrying about the recall of Judge Aaron Persky until last night, when I saw the early returns-- later confirmed-- that the recall was going to go through.
I felt like a heavy weight was removed from my chest. It’s the first time a judge has been recalled in California since the 1930s. And it was not easy.
Judge Persky-- for those who don’t know-- was the judge who gave Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner a shockingly lenient sentence, setting off a national uproar about rape culture on college campuses. I have called Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber (above) the ultimate mama bear for her reaction to hearing Judge Turner’s sentence as it was read that day in the courtroom: She would fight to get him recalled no matter what it cost her.
It was the culmination of Dauber’s career spent fighting for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, set off by a powder keg of factors that made this particular case so egregious. The Judge had a pattern of giving athletes leniency. The victim in this case was a family friend of Dauber's. This happened at the university at which she’d chosen to spend her career. And the victim was a so-called “perfect victim.” There were witnesses, a preserved rape kit, and she cooperated fully in the brutal process of trying to bring him to justice.
Dauber felt that not only the victim Emily Doe, but all victims of sexual assault and potential victims of sexual assault could not merely suck up another loss here. If this was the end of Emily Doe’s story, why would any victim participate in a trial and investigation ever again?
It may seem so black and white in a place like the Bay Area in a time like #metoo that Dauber would win this fight. In reality, she could have easily lost it. It was a hard fought battle. She raised more than $1 million to run this campaign, and her opponent raised nearly that much. She had continual setbacks: Frivolous lawsuits meant to drain her coffers, and Persky’s Trumpian playbook so gross that in recent weeks it accused Emily Doe, of not even writing her own victim’s statement. Dauber herself was the subject of disgusting smears and attacks and threats.
Those who know my career know that I know a thing or two about the fallout from speaking truth to power. I’ve lost friends, business opportunities, advertisers, investors, and had to deal with threats against my family as a result of standing up to companies like Uber. So when I tell you what I’ve gone through is nothing compared to what Dauber has withstood over the last two years, you know that she walked through fire to send a message to victims that this will not stand. That their pain matters.
I’ve become close friends with Dauber over the last year. I’ve helped arrange fundraisers for this campaign, I’ve introduced her to dozens of friends of mine who have wound up supporting the campaign, and I’ve personally given more money to it than any other political campaign in my life.
Stanford’s own surveys found that that 43% of female undergraduates have experienced sexual assault or misconduct. And as Stanford’s defenders will be quick to point out-- that is on par with most of its peer schools. That does not make this epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses OK. It makes it all the more disturbing.
You don’t have to look very far to understand why athletes like Turner have been socialized to believe this behavior is forgivable. Remember his female highschool friend who drew a distinction between his being convicted for rape and his being “a rapist’? Remember his father’s comments that Turner was paying “a steep price” for “20 minutes of action”? And of course the ruling of Persky itself.
This happens on campuses because our society says it is fine. “Boys being boys” once again.
Rape is bad. I would have thought this is something we liberals in California who believe in equality can all get on board with. That these numbers are inexcusable. Surely it’s a dream of many parents living in Santa Clara county that their children get into Stanford. Surely they do not want their children sexually assaulted, right?
This has been the most heartbreaking shock to me of the last year of following this case closely: The number of powerful people at and connected to Stanford who not only didn’t support the recall, but actively smeared Dauber to would be donors. This is not speculation on my part: I have heard these conversations first hand. My stance in supporting this recall lost me career-long, close relationships in the Valley. A fact I still cannot wrap my mind around.
Why are young girls collateral damage to keep Stanford’s brand unblemished?
While Persky hired former Trump operatives to run his campaign, this fight did not divide along the lines of Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters. People I know who pretend to be disgusted at the tactics and beliefs of a Donald Trump who have pretended to support the #metoo movement were openly against this recall.
It was the beginning of a long awakening for me of just how deep the misogyny runs in the most “woke” halls of the Silicon Valley elite. Why bros like Travis Kalanick are so enabled in a place like this.
You don’t have to take my word for it, read the statements by those in the press who are disappointed the recall passed. This Los Gatos resident who said voters were unfairly “picking on a judge” is evidence that some people will always find a way to view men held accountable for their actions as victims, when actual victims are dismissed, discredited, and shamed. The defenders who said this sets a dangerous precedent that a judge won’t be able make a ruling that goes against “popular opinion.”
That’s right: To some people the idea that women shouldn’t be violently raped behind dumpsters is merely a “popular opinion.” To these people, young girls’ lives seem to be disposable in a way a grown judge’s job shouldn’t be. In a way a swimmer’s academic and athletic future shouldn’t be.
And of course, the idea that this sets some sort of dangerous precedent is intellectually dishonest. Yes, California voters will now frivolously raise more than $1 million and spend two years running political campaigns on a whim now. It didn’t seem to set a precedent the last time it happened in the 1930s.
“Setting precedent” is what judges do every day. The framework of a recall exists as a check on that power. If judges in California shouldn’t be held accountable to “popular opinion”, then why are they elected by the public, rather than appointed?
This is how backwards we are in how we fundamentally value women’s lives in comparison with male privilege. Yes, even in California.
This discovery-- that being against rape culture was somehow controversial among people I know-- coincided with a summer in which dozens and dozens of women reached out to me to privately tell me their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault in this industry. Many of those stories started at Stanford.
None of this is a coincidence. If the Valley’s feeder school doesn’t condemn this, the Valley itself won’t either. That other schools are “just as bad” isn’t a defense. When has Stanford ever been happy to be on par with other schools when it comes to academics or athletics? Why is it happy to be when it comes to sexual assault?
We wonder how Uber’s management could do something as horrible as obtain the medical records of a women raped using their service with the alleged intention of smearing her. We shouldn’t. Just as I’ve argued kicking Travis Kalanick out of Uber doesn’t solve that company’s problems, so too is Uber not the beginning or end of Silicon Valley’s grappling with the value of a woman’s violation, pain and life.
Earlier this year, I started to panic. Towards the end of this campaign the polls were starting to narrow. Dauber pointed out that what started as a campaign aimed at being a clear repudiation of rape culture would have a more damning cultural impact if Persky wasn’t recalled. What happens if the will of the voters was to uphold the view that Brock Turner shouldn’t be punished for “20 minutes of action”? What started as an opportunity to move things forward for victims, not only would be a lost opportunity, but it would move things severely backwards if the recall failed.
I didn’t realize how much tension I was carrying about this, as a woman, as a woman in this industry, as a woman who has seen some of the ugliest sides of people come out over the course of this campaign, and-- yes-- as a mother. I know we scoff at the men in this industry that say they “have daughters” as evidence of caring. But for me having children does make this all the more terrifying and urgent. I wouldn’t send my daughter to a school that had 43% odds of armed robbery, how can I send her to a school that has 43% odds of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. How? What is the answer if schools and the judicial system won’t address this?
I breathed better than I have in the last year once I saw the results were finalized and this battle at least had been won by those who think these numbers aren’t acceptable or excusable. Michele Dauber has given victims of sexual assault two years of her life at great cost and great pain. No matter what happens next with Ivy League schools-- whether they wrestle with this culture or continue to excuse it-- I’ll always be grateful that at least one line was drawn in the sand.