One Third of Rape Survivors Contemplate Suicide. To Honor Daisy Coleman, Here's How Society Must Change.
The 23-year-old, who appeared in the Netflix documentary 'Audrie & Daisy,' died by suicide this week.
I was years removed from my own sexual assault when I watched the 2017 Netflix documentary Audrie & Daisy, which chronicled the aftermath of two teenagers’ sexual assaults. Daisy Coleman and Audrie Pott, who lived on opposite ends of America, had both allegedly been raped by classmates while they were incoherent, only to endure endless cyberbullying and online harassment after reporting the incidents to the authorities. Pott died by suicide at 15 as a result, and on Tuesday, at just 23 years old, Coleman died by suicide, too.
I didn’t know Coleman. But like so many sexual assault survivors, I saw my reflection in the pained details of her experience.
Like Coleman’s accused rapist, the man and former coworker who believed he had innate ownership over my body and decided to yield it at a work party was never brought to justice. Like Coleman, I heard a district attorney tell me that there was “insufficient evidence” to bring any case to trial, let alone secure a conviction. And years after the bruises my rapist left behind on my breasts and thighs had been photographed, my insides swabbed and tested, I still wonder what exactly about my body was deemed insufficient. Perhaps Coleman wondered, too.
Like her, I had people call me a liar, blame me for my own rape, and harass and threaten me. The best friend of the first man who sexually assaulted me called me a whore, said I was making it up, labeled me a dumb slut. My then-boyfriend at the time of my second rape told me I should have known better, that there was no reason to be at that party with my male coworkers, that I shouldn’t have been drinking.
Like Coleman, I have contemplated ending my own life—a life that felt inconsequential when measured against a man’s future potential. Like countless survivors, I was all too aware of the statistics that, to me, felt like an unavoidable death sentence. When you learn that four out of every five rape victims will suffer from a chronic or physical condition as a result of their assault, that 42 percent of rape victims expect to be raped again, and that we’re 13 times more likely to die by suicide, it’s nearly impossible to feel like you’re nothing more than a walking corpse—that, perhaps, it’s simply futile to delay what can feel so inevitable.
But just like Coleman's story reminded me so much of my own, it is her death that reminds me that none of this has to be inevitable. Yes, one third of sexual assault survivors contemplate suicide, and 13% attempt to end their own lives. But it does not have to be this way.
While Coleman’s death is better described as one long homicide than a suicide, assault survivors are not beholden to a hidden hourglass counting down the seconds until we meet our unnecessary demise. And if this country actually valued the lives of survivors, perhaps more stories like Daisy’s and Audrie’s would not end in suicide.
As a collective, we have accepted the myriad ways in which this country fails sexual assault survivors as predestined facts. Yet there are clear action points that all of us—from the president of the United States to our elected officials to our community leaders, family members, and friends—can do to ensure that the aftermath of a sexual assault is not as traumatic, if not more traumatic, than the assault itself.
We could overhaul a judicial system that sees less than 1% of rape cases lead to a conviction and that gives men who are found guilty of raping Black women shorter sentences than men who’re found guilty of raping white women.
We could defund police departments and invest in community support organizations that are capable of fully meeting the mental, emotional, and physical needs of survivors. In nine years, police officers in the United States were charged with forcible rape 405 times.
We could take genuine steps to end the systemic racism that leaves Black, Brown, and Indigenous women more likely to experience sexual assault. We could build up Indigenous communities so that one in three Indigenous women will not be raped in their lifetime.
We could end the backlog of rape kits that, in 2019, left over 200,000 kits unopened and untouched, collecting dust and indifference while survivors wait for justice.
We could pass comprehensive legislation that would increase the number of sexual assault nurse examiners across the country, ensuring that every hospital and/or healthcare clinic has staff members who are specifically trained in examining, consoling, and informing survivors of their options in the aftermath of their assaults.
We could ensure that anyone who needs it has access to affordable mental health care.
We could vote out men in office who have either sat idly by as sexual assault victims were assaulted and traumatized; who have supported, defended, and/or made excuses for men who have been accused of sexual assault, harassment, or rape; or who have themselves been accused of sexual assault, harassment, and rape.
And we could all do the work to better understand that healing from a traumatic event like sexual assault is not linear but cyclical in nature. As survivors, we begin and end and begin again, jumping from a moment of grief to one of triumph to one of grief again, seemingly reborn in the fires of each trigger, each flashback, each night terror, each reminder that leaves us as raw and vulnerable as if our assaults had just occurred all over again.
In Audrie & Daisy, a detective talks to the camera about the pressures that young women face, victim-blaming survivors like Coleman for “wanting attention.” The detective says, “There’s a lot of pressure on young girls in society—to be pretty, to be liked, to be the popular one. All those things. And it’s not fair, but it is how our society works.”
It’s true that what happened to Pott and Coleman is not fair. But I refuse to believe that this is “just how our society works.” They deserved better. We deserve better.