Transformative Justice and the Stanford Rape Case

Brock Turner’s mugshot.
“You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was ‘unconscious intoxicated woman’, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All­ American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.”

Above is an excerpt from the letter written by the unnamed woman who was raped by Brock Turner. She read it to his face. If you haven’t read it yet, and you’re ready to, please do so.

Turner was given a light sentence of six-months in jail and three years probation, as residing judge Aaron Perksy worried that anything more would have a “severe impact” on the convicted rapist’s future.

Perksy’s leniency on Turner has also been reflected in the media coverage of the case. Rather than a mug shot, which was only recently released, most coverage of the case has used a yearbook photo of the smiling Turner, as well as repeatedly recognizing him for being an All American Swimmer and a good student of the highly regarded university.

Convicted rapist.

This is quite the contrast to how reporting and sentencing of black men usually goes, be it for sexual assault or other crimes. Vox looked into the discrepancies, concluding that:

“Looking at the disparity in media coverage, the message is clear: White criminal suspects are worthy of your sympathy and empathy, with their lives carefully analyzed to see exactly what went wrong. But black suspects? A simple mug shot is all you apparently need to see.”

The Stanford Case, unfortunately, has become a prime indicator of just how tight of a stranglehold rape culture and racism have on the American justice system, media, and more broadly, culture. To see a system hold a young white male’s future with so much more regard than a woman’s or people of colors’ is disgusting and yet depressingly unsurprising.

One would hope that with all the supposed momentum of the progressive movement, that these kinds of justice would be more rare. But they are not the exception; they are still very much the rule. The battle is long from over, and for survivors of sexual assault, it’s exhausting and often defeating.

“At the of end of the hearing, the trial, I was too tired to speak. I would leave drained, silent. I would go home turn off my phone and for days I would not speak. You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself. Every time a new article come out, I lived with the paranoia that my entire hometown would find out and know me as the girl who got assaulted. I didn’t want anyone’s pity and am still learning to accept victim as part of my identity. You made my own hometown an uncomfortable place to be.”

To anyone who has been raped and attempted to seek justice, reading the Stanford Survivor’s letter to her assaulter might be more heartbreaking than empowering. Survivors rarely get the opportunity for even that little slice of cathartic justice. Anything more, be it substantive legal action or even offender accountability, is even more rare, and often, seemingly impossible.

The publishing of the letter, as well as coverage of the outcome of the Stanford trial, has awakened even louder public outrage. The injustice is clear and all too recognizable.

One question that must come along then with the public discussion of the case is what then would real justice in this case look like? Or more broadly, what does justice for victims of rape and sexual assault ideally entail?

What does justice for rape survivors look like?

The survivor’s attorney asked for six years imprisonment. Many people online want to see Turner spend the entire rest of his life behind bars, rotting away, with even some hoping that he too would be subjected to rape during his time in prison. That last demand, is Babylonian and incredibly dangerous in its ignorance of the epidemic of prison rape, itself a bi-product of the rape culture that led to the Stanford case.

In her letter, the Stanford Survivor reflected on what kind of justice she wanted against Turner:

“My life has been on hold for over a year, a year of anger, anguish and uncertainty, until a jury of my peers rendered a judgment that validated the injustices I had endured. Had Brock admitted guilt and remorse and offered to settle early on, I would have considered a lighter sentence, respecting his honesty, grateful to be able to move our lives forward. Instead he took the risk of going to trial, added insult to injury and forced me to relive the hurt as details about my personal life and sexual assault were brutally dissected before the public. He pushed me and my family through a year of inexplicable, unnecessary suffering, and should face the consequences of challenging his crime, of putting my pain into question, of making us wait so long for justice…
…Unfortunately, after reading the defendant’s report, I am severely disappointed and feel that he has failed to exhibit sincere remorse or responsibility for his conduct. I fully respected his right to a trial, but even after twelve jurors unanimously convicted him guilty of three felonies, all he has admitted to doing is ingesting alcohol. Someone who cannot take full accountability for his actions does not deserve a mitigating sentence. It is deeply offensive that he would try and dilute rape with a suggestion of “promiscuity”. By definition rape is not the absence of promiscuity, rape is the absence of consent, and it perturbs me deeply that he can’t even see that distinction.”

Turner’s greatest crime, according to the survivor, is not the supposed “twenty minutes of action” his father claims he’s being punished for. It’s for further victimizing the woman he assaulted, for refusing to take accountability, and for making her suffer through even more degradation. That’s not a drunken mistake. That’s not one night that changed the course of the rest of his life. That’s him, his family, his lawyers, and his culture all coming to the conclusion that this isn’t really that big a deal.

For many, accountability is much more than admitting wrong-doing and settling out-of-court. Enter Transformative Justice.

Transformative Justice

Transformative justice, according to Philly Stand Up!, a sexual assault activist group based out of the city, describes the concept on their website as having “no one definition. It is a way of practicing alternative justice which acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system.”

Transformative justice originated from activist circles of women of color and queer people who sought both justice for survivors of sexual assault, but also recognized the systematic racism and dehumanizing nature of the prison-industrial complex. Police also have a tendency respond to marginalized people reporting rape and abuse by committing their own violence against survivors. Given no other alternatives, they created their own.

Transformative justice is an intersectional solution, holding rapists and abusers accountable without contributing to the broken and ineffective reality of our justice system.

“Transformative Justice offers our movement an orientation towards campaigns that move away from criminalization and towards true transformation of individuals and conditions. Transformative Justice offers our movements a means of addressing the way that power and privilege, abuse and our own histories of trauma play out in our relationships, organizations, activism, and movement-building. Rather than isolate, collude with, or deny the abusive behavior of activists and leaders, we can create processes that promote transformation of individuals, relationship, organizations, and movement practices towards the justice, health, respect and equity we want to create in the world.” — GenerationFive report on Transformative Justice.

But does Brock Turner, a major benefiter of white male supremacy if there ever was one, deserve transformative justice? Or does he deserve the kind of treatment that people without his privilege have been subjected to for years? Does any rapist who refuses accountability and pulls survivors into continued victimization and trauma deserve anything other than to be locked away, completely exiled from society? For many of us, including me, the first instinct is to say yes. But is what we’ve been long taught is justice actually justice after all?

Intersectionality challenges us to ask tough questions, to see the different ways kinds of oppression are perpetuated, to see people who have committed the most heinous crimes as products of destructive systems, rather than just pure embodiments of evil. Punitive justice might seem rewarding when it’s used against those who usually benefit from said systems, but rape culture, racism, transphobia — these and more will not be defeated alone by using the existing tools of the oppressor. Removing those tools completely and establishing new, transformative systems is the path to real justice.

But it’s a long path, and for many survivors, how long can we ask them to wait?

I encourage you to read further about transformative justice and how it intersects with rape culture, all written by much more qualified people than me. See below.

Please feel free to correct me if you feel that I’ve misrepresented anything that I’ve written about or quoted above.

Further Reading:

“Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Utilizing Community-Based Accountability Strategies to Address Sexual Violence”, Annie Gorden, Restorative Justice Center, UC Berkley, May 20th. 2015.

“Can Transformative Justice Stop Rape?”, Bridget Todd, Buzzfeed News, May 24th. 2013.

“Rape Culture: would prison abolition help women?”, Josh Kitto, Open Democracy, Feb. 24. 2015.

“Transformative Justice”, Generation Five.

“Transformative Justice Resources”, Sarah DeYoung, Barnard Center for Research on Women Blog, Feb. 26. 2015.

“Why Our Punitive Justice System Doesn’t Work — And 3 Alternatives to Prisons”, Jennifer Loubriel, Everyday Feminism, May 17. 2016.