Long story short: I was raped. More than once. Cops refused to file a report. University forced me into “mediation” with my rapists and sent me to a crisis pregnancy center. I’ve been working for the last 20+ years with other survivors of sexual assault to support one another and to create positive change in this garbage world.
I share these things not for your pity. I am not opening up my wounds for your consumption. I am sharing these things because you need to understand my context to understand where I am coming from.
I have been weary this last week watching outrage over Brock Turner’s sentencing flood my social feeds. Seeing his face over and over is exhausting enough, but to someone who is intimately familiar with how the criminal justice and penal systems in the US were built broken, both from personal experience and extensive research, it comes as no surprise. Is Judge Aaron Persky’s decision ethically reprehensible? Is the sentence extremely lenient, obviously reflective of the Judge’s personal feelings? Certainly. Is it something to be expected from this system? Yes.
[Bookmark this: my friend and colleague Mariame Kaba is one of the foremost activists for prison abolition and historians of the prison system in the US, and if you are interested at all by anything I say here, you should go spend as much time as humanly possible with her work.]
The systems of evaluating and collecting evidence and the myriad assumptions that are necessary components of the American criminal courtroom are not built to accommodate the realities of living victims who may be processing severe emotional, mental and/or physical trauma. (This study and this one, published in 1985 and 1984 respectively, chronicle the myriad issues and recommend legal reforms that have yet to be enacted. Here lie many more studies to read, if you would like further legal and sociological scholarship.) And what solution is prison when inmates themselves are likely to be sexually assaulted, when recidivism rates are tenuous given all sex crimes being lumped together, when a prison term can clip all chances at positive change and rehabilitation?)
Some sexual assault victims have chosen civil trial solutions instead; many small communities, including campuses, are trying the application of restorative justice practices to sexual assault allegations. I have personally been involved in some restorative justice work in my DIY underground music community; some processes have failed, but some have also succeeded, in that the goals outlined by the survivor and their support team at the outset of the process have been met and the perpetrator hasn’t reoffended.
The most important thing I’ve learned from restorative justice work is that I personally find little comfort in vengeance. I wish my rapists had been held accountable. I wish I had received support from the system. I wish I had been heard when I put my hand up and said “Something fucked up happened to me.” I wish for safety for others. (Did my rapists hurt other people? They could have, since there were no consequences and no accountability. I do not know. I truly, truly, hope not.) I wish for peace. But I do not wish for punishment. The world is full of suffering, and I have seen and experienced cycles of abuse, and I am tired, and I want them to end. I hurt when others hurt, even if they are people who hurt me. That makes me no better or worse than anyone else; that is just who I, personally, am.
(Your mileage may vary. I know survivors who wish for vengeance. I cannot speak for any others, only for myself. There are many different ways of survival, many different ways of achieving justice. That is actually a large point here: that there is no one right way to achieve justice, that prison is not the only solution, that there is not only one way to heal, as our media tells us, that the L&O: SVU “fair” conviction-and-imprisonment narrative is not the only path. What I ask here is: what is justice? We do not ask that question enough.)
So, yes, I am for the abolition of prisons, even when it comes to rapists. I am for criminal justice system reform. I am for consent training. I am for cultural reform. I am for practical alternatives to finding peace and safety: my end goal, my pie-in-the-sky dream, is to never see another person hurt the way I was. My end goal is to make my own activism completely obsolete.
Brock Turner is wholly a creation of our culture, as is every rapist and abuser, and so is the system that let him off the hook. And to avoid creating more of him, we need to change so many things about our culture, society, legal and penal system that it may seem completely overwhelming. But I can tell you, as someone embedded wholeheartedly in this struggle, that it is work worth doing, that I have personally healed so much doing it and seen others heal around me. That is the engine that keeps me going. That is all I have.