From a survivor to Sujit Choudhry

This op-ed was previously published on Facebook and is printed here with permission from the author.

To Sujit Choudhry,

Last week, you went to work in your office. Comfortably. Safely.

Last week, you went to work in your office of your tenured faculty position.  Whereas your former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell — a resilient woman of color, a mother of five children — remains forever unable to return to her position, and forever unable to navigate this campus safely again.

Last week, I had a panic attack. I understand that might cause you confusion. You’ve probably never experienced anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts or any other lasting mental health effects that often develop as a result of experiencing sexual violence or harassment. You’ve never had to walk through the world in pain, in memory, in fear of your own safety and well-being. Your mere presence on this campus is a threat to the safety and wellbeing of the entire UC Berkeley community.

It is shameful that you invoke a survivor’s own words in an attempt to absolve yourself from guilt. Even if it is true, having “pure intentions” does not change the fact that you perpetrated an impure act. The intent does not matter when the impact you have made goes unaddressed. In case you forgot, the impact is that you perpetrated eight different counts of sexual harassment over a period of one year. You assert that you “meant nothing” by your gestures. Because sexual violence means nothing to you.

Choudhry, you claim “neither Ms. Sorrell nor the university’s investigators considered my conduct to be sexual or predatory in intent.” Page nine of the 12-page report of the investigation’s findings explicitly states: “The Respondent’s conduct of kissing, hugging and touching the Complainant was unwelcome and of a sexual nature.” The conclusion asserts: “By a preponderance of the evidence, the Respondent violated the sexual harassment  provisions of the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence.”

Your response? “The report made many factual findings that I contested then and which I contest to this day.” How far removed from reality must you be to contest the proven facts and truths of the situation?

It is laughable, but expected, that you emphasize the fact that the “sanctions that the entire campus leadership, including Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his legal advisers,” assured us that the handling of the investigation was “warranted and appropriate for this situation.” For once, I agree. I agree that the way this investigation was handled was an appropriate representation of how Dirks and the campus have not done enough to protect victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Choudhry, if you truly wanted “to take responsibility” for your actions, then you would not be lamenting about the damage to your precious reputation. Taking responsibility for your actions means accepting the damage — the damage that you alone caused — to Tyann Sorrell, to your coworkers, to your family and to the entire UC Berkeley community.

If you truly want “to learn from what had happened,” you should start by learning some truths about sexual violence. The first being that this is not something that “happened.”

Acts of sexual violence and sexual harassment do not just happen. People commit acts of sexual violence.  

People — no matter how “pure” they think their intentions are — commit acts of sexual violence. And actions do not exist in a vacuum. Perpetrators are not only perpetrators.

Being a father does not make you incapable of perpetrating sexual violence.

Being a husband does not make you incapable of perpetrating sexual violence.

Being an academic administrator, who has “supervised women employees and research assistants” and “taught women law students, for 18 years” and being a scholar of law most certainly does not make you incapable of perpetrating sexual violence.

But of course, it makes you all the more likely to get away with it.

You find it important to note, “I have never been accused of any misconduct — sexual or otherwise — in my life before this case.” Stanford Rapist Brock Turner also had no prior history of (convicted) misconduct or crime. That does not mean that these acts of violence are any less inexcusable or real.

It is only fitting that Aaron Persky, the judge who ensured that Turner spent only three months in jail for three felony counts of sexual assault, is also a UC Berkeley Law alumnus. You both have made it abundantly clear that you and your alma mater value the reputations of known perpetrators, of yourselves, more than the lives of the women you’ve harmed.

You want “to try to enable both Ms. Sorrell” and yourself to “move on” but the thing is, you don’t get to decide when that happens. You don’t get to decide how that happens. You don’t get to decide if that happens at all. You don’t get to impose your reality upon us anymore. The most important part of protecting and supporting survivors is protecting their right to decide what support means to them.

Finally, “there is more than one side to every story.” Indeed, Sujit Choudhry.  But yours, much like Brock Turner’s, is a side that is far too often glorified, tacitly accepted, and given ample platforms and opportunities to be heard. It is a side that we will continue to hear, as long as rape culture allows it — as long as perpetrators remain insulated in positions of power.

We want accountability, not apology.

Kiana Lailin Schmitt is a sexual violence and sexual harassment peer educator at the UC Berkeley PATH to Care Center, and a member of the Consent Education Working Group of the Berkeley Student Cooperative system.

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