Brock Turner’s Sentence Is Bullshit
*Trigger Warning: Sexual assault and violence*
Former Stanford athelete Brock Turner will serve six months in county jail with probation after being convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault because, according to the judge, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him … I think he will not be a danger to others.” If you are unfamiliar with the details of the case, you can read about them here. That isn’t what this piece is about.
I want to talk about rape and justice, or lack thereof, in America. I want to talk about rape and our priorities in America. I want to talk about rape and privilege in America.
Did you know that for every 100 sexual assaults in the United States, only two will result in felony convictions or the rapist seeing a single day in jail? Is it really then at all surprising that 68% of sexual assaults go unreported to the police? This is one of the greatest modern tragedies we face, especially when confronted with the fact that one in five women in the US has been raped in her lifetime, roughly 22 million.
When victims look at the justice system, all they see is an impossibly steep mountain to climb, one in which their attacker is incredibly likely to walk away unscathed yet will cost them dearly. Let’s not forget that the victim has just experienced a horrific trauma and is in a vulnerable state. In his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer writes:
Rape and war, she explained are among the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivors of sexual assault frequently exhibit many of the same symptoms and behaviors as survivors of combat: flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance, depression, isolation, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of anger, unrelenting anxiety, and an inability to shake the feeling that the world is spinning out of control.
Choosing to seek legal action only means prolonging that stress. It means repeatedly reliving the trauma during testimony, it means having your character and personal life picked apart and scrutinized in the most degrading ways, it means having to face your attacker head on, even if you aren’t ready. Those that choose that path are undeniably brave.
Even if the victim decides to undergo this, the reality that their attacker will likely receive little to no retribution for their crimes looms over them. So why is it so hard to get proper justice in these cases? For one, our society has somehow accepted the myth that an enormous amount of rape cases are falsified, a tactic a woman is using to punish a man for something. From that myth, the idea that we must protect the accused from being fraudulently convicted prevails, and the bar for finding them guilty is raised ridiculously high. In fact, the bar for getting the police to even believe a victim is high (you can read more on that in Missoula).
Once a case arrives in court, the defense’s tactic is always centered on discrediting the accuser. Perhaps she was drinking. Perhaps her memory is imperfect (“When did you leave your house?” “8:00” “Ah but yesterday you said 8:05! See she can’t remember important details precisely like this, how can we trust anything she says?”) Perhaps she was dressed too risquely. Perhaps she has a promiscuous reputation. Perhaps she was just saying no because she likes to be a tease. I could go on, but honestly I recommend reading the words from the Stanford victim herself. She explains this, and what it’s like living through one of these trials, much better than I ever could. My point is simply to say that our society has accepted these things as valid excuses for why a woman is raped, which is mindbogglingly stupid. Author Jessica Valenti says it best in her book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women:
Now, should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.
That’s a lot of framing, but I think it’s important to keep in mind when examining the Stanford swimmer’s case. It ends up being a perfect example of the injustice rape victims face. Very few sexual assault cases have so much evidence going for them, including two witnesses who saw the crime in progress. And yet the result is the same: extreme leniency. At least this one got a couple days in jail (albeit county jail and not actual prison).
That isn’t fair. That isn’t just. The judge is concerned about the impact prison would have on his life? Seriously, fuck that and fuck him. What about the impact on her? She has to live with the trauma he caused her for the rest of her life. Why are we so concerned about his well being that we ignore proper punishment? And even if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of justice as retribution, then think about the message being sent to men everywhere: raping once is okay. Maybe you’ll get a slap on the wrist.
Now, I say men everywhere, but that’s a bit of a lie. It just so happens that this rapist was a star athelete, expected to oneday swim in the Olypmics. His future was so promising (*eye roll*), and so we fear the impact prison would have on him. How much you want to bet if he’d gone to a state school or come from a poor neighborhood and his skin was any shade of brown the outcome would be a hell of a lot different? This case is seething with privilege. The judge’s words that “I think he will not be a danger to others” are racially tinged. He isn’t considered dangerous because he’s white and affluent. He’s seen as just a nice kid who made one tiny mistake because our society is trained to look at people like him as good and innocent by nature, unlike the many black and brown boys his age that are apparently predisposed to being a danger to us all.
This narrative is false in a lot of ways, but since we’re talking about rape, let’s talk about just how dangerous Turner likely is to women in the future. Krakauer writes:
Lisak and Miller examined a random sample of 1,882 men, all of whom were students at the University of Massachusetts Boston between 1991 and 1998. Their average age was twenty-four. Of these 1,882 students, 120 individuals — 6.4 percent of the sample — were identified as rapists, which wasn’t a surprising proportion. But 76 of the 120–63 percent of the undetected student rapists, amounting to 4 percent of the overall sample — turned out to be repeat offenders who were collectively responsible for at least 439 rapes, an average of nearly 6 assaults per rapist. A very small number of men in the population, in other words, had raped a great many women with utter impunity. Lisak’s study also revealed something equally disturbing: These same 76 individuals were also responsible for 49 sexual assaults that didn’t rise to the level of rape, 277 acts of sexual abuse against children, 66 acts of physical abuse against children, and 214 acts of battery against intimate partners. This relative handful of male students, as Lisak put it, “had each, on average, left 14 victims in their wake….And the number of assaults was almost certainly underreported.
Lisak also states that, statistically, 90% of rapes are commited by serial offenders. In other words, rapists are highly likely to be repeat offenders, which makes sense. Someone who chooses to sexually assault someone else must have a warped sense of the world, must lack an understanding of consent or not care about it. People don’t just wake up one day and decide they’re going to rape someone: it’s a learned perspective on the world and people around you. Brock Turner’s decision to sexually assault an unconscious woman behind a dumpster says everything you need to know about his perception of women and his danger to them. He is a danger. He is a problem. Too bad the mask of his whiteness and privilege has caused the judge to see only that image of the inherently good but misguided boy who just made a mistake.
Everything about this infuriates me. Our society is broken, on many levels, but particularly egregiously when it comes to rape. The first and easiest step to fix things would be to give a proper punishment to those found guilty, but we can’t even manage that. It’s resulted in outcomes like this one remaining unsurprising to people who understand the current state of sexual assault and justice in America, and that is a fucking travesty. It’s wrong. It’s sickening. It’s an all too common event across every sector of society in every town and city across this country. It has got to stop.