Last month, during the Miss Tennessee pageant, one of the contestants was asked about her thoughts on the sentencing of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer who was found guilty of sexual assault. That contestant happened to be the reigning Miss Nashville Jeanette Morelan, who was a survivor of a sexual assault herself, People Magazine reports.
The question really hit home for Morelan, and she had a split second to decided whether or not she should share her story with the audience or remain quiet on her past assault.
"It was a split-second decision," Jeanette said. "You hear the question and you just have a moment to think. I had known how I felt about the case, and was horrified to hear about it. As a survivor I had to follow at a distance because it is so painful to read about."
RAINN Speakers Bureau member @JeanetteMorelan on the importance of sharing her story: https://t.co/Gx4Fk2xzE2 via @Cosmopolitan
— RAINN (@RAINN01) July 6, 2016
Morelan was sexually assaulted two years ago by a former student at her university. It took her weeks to finally talk about what had happened and to finally take legal action against her attacker.
"One of the things that really hindered me was that I had never known anyone who had gone through sexual assault," she said. "I was in denial for months that it had even happened. You think, 'This can't happen to me.'"
Morelan added, "I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It took a huge mental toll. As much as I tried to push it away, it culminated. After a few weeks, I decided to report it to my university and go through the Title IX process."
According to Know Your IX, Title IX is a "landmark federal civil right that prohibits sex discrimination in education." Title IX applies to all people, both male and female, and "addresses sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and sexual violence."
"Sexual violence includes attempted or completed rape or sexual assault, as well as sexual harassment, stalking, voyeurism, exhibitionism, verbal or physical sexuality-based threats or abuse, and intimate partner violence."
Jeanette went through the process and decided not to press charges because the assault wasn't violent. However, her university issued a non-contact order. Morelan decided to stop repressing what happened and started seeing a therapist. After becoming comfortable discussing her assault, she joined the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network as a public speaker.
It was through the help of her therapist and her experience speaking about sexual abuse that led her to ultimately decide to share her story during the Q&A part of the pageant.
@people thank you so much for sharing my story! Sending my love to all fellow survivors—you are so brave and deserve our support.
— jeanette morelan (@jeanettemorelan) July 7, 2016
"As a survivor of sexual assault, I definitely do not agree with the sentence," the 21-year-old contestant said on stage. "Perpetrators, no matter how privileged, should be punished for their crimes."
She added, "It was terrifying. I stepped off the stage and immediately started crying. I was just rushed with emotion. It was hard to [talk about it] because that was a hard experience, and it's always going to be a hard experience."
Even though it was hard to share her experience, Jeanette said she has no regrets and would do it again if the opportunity arose.
Miss Tennessee contestant opens up about being a sexual assault survivor onstage at pageant https://t.co/kcGNZaHgPs pic.twitter.com/TFn1Fhddid
— People Magazine (@people) July 7, 2016
"People associate pageants with perfection," she said. "And they see a sexual assault survivor and think of that as a weak, shameful or guilt-ridden thing. I wanted to share so that people understand that it's not something that only happens to certain people – it really can happen to anyone."
"Secondly, I wanted to share it because it doesn't define me," Morelan continued. "It's part of my story, and it was obviously a struggle that I went through, but in the two years since it's happened, I really found myself and understood myself like I never have before."
[Image via Shutterstock]