“You Think That Sexual Assault Happens In A Dark Alley And That It’s A Stranger, But It’s Not”

by BUST Magazine

Day after day, we are confronted with more horrifying news about campus sexual assault—and the valiant effort in stopping it. Thankfully, there are people out there like Cierra Kaler-Jones, AKA Miss New Jersey, making it their mission to end these instances once and for all. In this article, originally posted on Narratively, Kaler-Jones discusses her experience as a minority in the pageant world and how she’s using her position to openly talk to young people about her own experience in order to generate more discussion around the topic of violence against women.

Cierra Kaler-Jones stands outside her home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, wearing a dark blue button-down dress shirt, denim jeans and brown boots — a casual yet sophisticated look that complements her personality well. Kaler-Jones is the reigning Miss New Jersey but often seems like any other twenty-one-year-old college student — studying for the GRE while chatting about her boyfriend and her future dreams.

On her right-hand, Kaler-Jones wears a sparkly ring in the shape of a crown, a symbol of the crowning moment when she was named Miss New Jersey 2014, on her fourth and final try for the title. She is a tiny figure with a curly mane and a megawatt smile that makes it easy to see why she won the title. However, Kaler-Jones does not feel she resembles a typical beauty queen. “I have a big, curly Afro puff and I refuse to straighten it at this point,” she says.

 When she stepped into the interview room at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City this past September, she was polished and practiced. She knew she was ready. Yet she was not fully prepared for what was about to unfold. She never intended to tell the pageant judges the secret she had been hiding for the past three years. It just slipped out, she says. 

Only moments earlier, Kaler-Jones was thinking about shoes. Before she entered the pageant room, she broke the side strap on her worn-out pair. They were old. She had them for interview competitions for the past four years and now, just before the most pivotal interview of them all, the strap came undone. She tried to put the strap back in place with a safety pin but it wasn’t working. A fellow contestant stepped in and let her borrow an extra pair.

And now here she was, standing at the podium in front of a microphone with a camera pointing in her direction, facing six judges, while wearing a pair of borrowed shoes — and deciding on the spot to reveal a hidden truth. As a Rutgers University freshman, Kaler-Jones had been sexually assaulted.

The judges at the Miss America pageant did not throw softball questions. The first one posed to Kaler-Jones was about violence against women, which had become a hot topic across the nation. Kaler-Jones was well aware. She explained her college minor was women and gender studies and that women’s issues were important to her. She also explained that she herself had once been assaulted.

“It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” says Kaler-Jones. “It felt like this burden that I had been carrying for so long just subsided because I was finally able to share that.”

The judges didn’t press the matter further and Kaler-Jones felt relieved to have finally opened up. “I felt at peace with myself because I knew how hard I worked and I knew that I had left my heart on the floor in that judges’ room and that I had shared pieces of myself that weren’t so easy to share,” she says.



Illustration c/o Marianna Madriz

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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