Brock Turner’s case is not the exception, but the rule
If anything good is to come from Brock Turner’s obnoxious face all over our social media feeds for days, it’s that people stop seeing him and his terrible family as a one-off, his case as a miscarriage of justice that sparks outrage on an individual basis but is ultimately the exception. But the Turner case is not: law enforcement, the legal establishment, the media and the general public treating rape as a trivial offence and a rapist as a silly boy who’s made a mistake, or even as a victim of malicious lies, is almost overwhelmingly the rule.
Some people might remember the Steubenville rapists, who were sentenced to a year in prison for rape and CNN lamented the loss of their “promising futures”. Or Rehtaeh Parsons, who committed suicide when she was 15 after videos of her being gang-raped went viral online, she was harassed by her community as a “slut” and the police investigation was half-hearted at best. Closer to home, Eleanor de Freitas, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, committed suicide when her rape allegations were dropped and she was instead prosecuted for making false allegations. Her alleged rapist referred to her as a “prostitute”. Also in the news in the recent past: Ched Evans, who ultimately only served two and a half years in jail for rape and who is now being retried, and Adam Johnson, sentenced to six years for sexual activity with an underage girl. Both of those men have been vehemently defended online and in the media, and the integrity of their victims questioned. This is only a small sample of rape cases that are notorious for how poorly the state and society treats the victim, and how sympathetically they treated the rapist. And even all the cases that make the media are only the tip of the iceberg.
If further proof is needed that these aren’t just high-profile exceptions, and that these examples are part of an epidemic and product of a culture: in Scotland alone, 90% of reported rapes never go to trial. Of those that go before the court, approximately a third result in a conviction, and rarely for a long sentence. Yes, there are inevitable difficulties with proving rape due to the nature of the crime, but as the above examples show, even physical, documentary evidence doesn’t always prevent police, prosecution services, juries and the public/media hive mind from dismissing accusations because the victim was drunk, or a “slut” or a “malicious liar”.
Put together the statistics and the media stories with the anecdotes we all have: the number of women you know who have been raped and didn’t report it; the number of women you know who have been raped and told they were to blame, or that “it wasn’t a big deal anyway so stop making everyone uncomfortable”; the number of sexual assaults you’re aware of among your friends that were preventable had someone thought it worth preventing. In this context, it’s harder to write off the likes of Brock Turner and his family’s snivelling justifications and the judge’s lack of empathy for the victim as merely a horrible exception. They are extreme elements of a system that hates women and protects the men who hurt them. It’s often described as “rape culture” but it’s important to recognise it as a facet of patriarchy, because it’s neither a gender-neutral issue nor an individual one.
Moving forward, we could take Brock Turner’s crime and the excuses made by his family and legal system and put them in the context of a system that treats violence against women as trivial or justified. We could start giving all women who make allegations of rape the benefit of the doubt, because under the patriarchy we have to acknowledge that violence by men is a part of every woman’s existence. We could view the judge’s remarks about Brock Turner as both stemming from and perpetuating a culture that thinks the promising future of a rapist matters more than the harm inflicted on their victim. By treating this as a structural oppression, which everyone is responsible for creating and maintaining, we can move towards dismantling it. Because the alternative – treating this as a tragic aberration with no basis in gender or oppressive structure – not only erases the violence happening against women on a vast scale, it allows people to pretend they aren’t complicit in it, whether by their acts or omissions. If this is how we approach the Brock Turner case, we’ve done nothing except plaster his face over twitter, trigger lots of rape victims, and vilify him as an individual, while maintaining the structures that allow Turner and all the other rapists to keep raping and effectively getting away with it.