Warning: spoilers for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why ahead.
13 Reasons Whytells the story of why high school junior Hannah (Katherine Langford) chose to end her life. But it’s not only Hannah’s pain that we are witness to in the unflinching new Netflix series. A big piece of Hannah’s story — which isn’t revealed until episode 10 — is how she watched, frozen, as her one-time best friend Jessica (Alisha Boe) was raped by popular athlete Bryce (Justin Prentice). Yet the relationship between Jessica and Bryce, in present day, doesn’t seem to reflect one we might expect to see between a survivor and her rapist. Jessica and Bryce’s continued friendship is an important plot point on 13 Reasons Why, its purpose seemingly to debunk dangerous myths about what makes a sexual assault “real.”
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 93% of juveniles who have been sexually assaulted knew their perpetrator. Jessica’s own assault happened when Bryce found her nearly passed out on her own bed, after being informed by Jessica’s boyfriend, Justin, (Brandon Flynn) that she was too drunk to hook up. When Jessica came to and found Bryce on top of her, she struggled to get him off, only for him to whisper in her ear that everything was okay.
Weeks later, however, Jessica and Bryce hang out as though this terrible crime never happened. Spending time with her rapist and having things “go back to normal” is, in a way, Jessica’s defense mechanism — and, sadly, it’s also a way for people to excuse the validity of her rape. Though her friends have listened to Hannah’s tape detailing Jessica’s assault, no one seems to believe that it really occurred.
Yet in many cases, a survivor tolerating their rapist at all — let alone engaging in friendship or a relationship — raises eyebrows. It becomes something that a doubter can cling to — how can you claim that you were raped by this person, when two weeks later you celebrated his birthday? When you went on a second date? When you texted him about the math homework?
That’s why Jessica’s story is important. It’s clear from episode 1 that Jessica is struggling with something, though we don’t yet know what that is. When we see her in present day, she is numbing herself with alcohol and partying — erratic behavior that doesn’t match up with the Jessica we saw in Hannah’s flashbacks. She also seeks out Bryce and hangs out with him alone, seemingly “flirting” with the person who we later learn raped her. It’s not that Bryce didn’t commit a serious crime, nor is it that Jessica has forgiven him for it. Yet by hanging out with Bryce, by pretending everything is “fine” between them, Jessica assumed, incorrectly, that it would be easier to move on.
Coming to terms with your own sexual assault is a difficult thing, and knowing that someone you trusted and cared for committed a heinous crime against you is even more challenging to cope with. Jessica’s story reminds viewers that sexual assault is often messy — but that, no matter how the survivor behaves after, it does not absolve a rapist’s actions.
Click HERE to read more from Refinery29.