In late June, 21-year-old Jeanette Morelan, the reigning Miss Nashville, found herself in the top five of this year’s Miss Tennessee pageant.
This meant she would be a part of the Q&A portion of the pageant, but Morelan wasn’t asked about her favourite date, or even what she thought about the upcoming United States presidential election.
The judges asked Morlan a question with a lot more meat to it.
That’s quite the question for a beauty pageant. But Morlan didn’t shy away from it.
In fact, she took the question as an opportunity to share her story.
“As a survivor of sexual assault, I definitely do not agree with the sentence,” Morelan said to the thousands watching.
“Perpetrators, no matter how privileged, should be punished for their crimes.”
She may not have won the Miss Tennessee crown, but she certainly won a crown in our eyes.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan.com shortly after the pageant, Morlan said that that moment, which she calls her “coming out” moment, made the whole experience worth it.
Like a lot of women who have been the victim of sexual assault, Morlan kept her distance from the Brock Turner case.
“I had obviously heard about [the case] and it was a little hard for me to follow because [of the risk of re-trauma],” she explains.
“I was sexually assaulted my sophomore year — it’s been about two years since it happened. As a rape survivor, any time you hear a story like that, you’re following it from a distance to protect yourself.”
So when the question was posed to her, she drew upon the strength she’s received from speaking about her assault for Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) Speakers’ Bureau.
“I’d had the opportunity to tell my story on behalf of that organisation, but sharing it on a live stage at Miss Tennessee was scary,” says Morlan.
“But when that question came, I knew in my heart that it was the right moment to speak out.”
And it’s a great thing she did.
Morlan explains that after her assault she, like so many victims of sexual assault, felt ashamed and alone.
“I had never met anyone who had been sexually assaulted; when it happened to me, I thought, This doesn’t happen to anyone. This just doesn’t happen,” she told Cosmo.
After a long and painful process she was able to talk about what happened and work through all that comes along with such trauma.
Eventually she says she realised she had a “unique opportunity.”
A thank you to the heroic strangers who saved Brock Turner’s victim. (Post continues after video…)
“I’ve always been seen as someone who’s been incredibly successful; I really felt like me sharing my story would help inspire other women to share theirs — not necessarily get up on stage in front of a large audience but just to tell one person,” she explains.
Her wish is for those suffering alone to realise there are people they can reach out to.
“There are so many women and men that have experienced something like that, and haven’t had the courage to reach out to someone and get help,” she says.
“If my story can help one person do that, it’s worth it to me.”
Morlan’s optimism even extends to the Brock Turner case.
She explains that she wishes the Turner verdict had turned out different, but she can see positives.
“[T]he backlash that we’ve seen, I think that shows that people have realised they can have a positive impact,” she tells Cosmo.
“Even though legally we’re not going to get the result we want, I think people’s awareness of the issue — I think that dialogue will continue.”
And she’s willing to throw herself head first into helping to facilitate that conversation.
“As a very happy, ambitious 21-year-old, the first thing I don’t want to tell people about me is that I was sexually assaulted,” she explains.
“But if you can take that and say, ‘Yes, this happened, and it’s inexcusable. Yes, the justice system needs to protect our victims. Yes, this doesn’t have to define me and I am stronger than that,’ that’s really powerful.”
It certainly is.