The Brock Turner rape case demonstrates both progress and regression in a society still so evidently dominated by rape culture. Here I give my two cents on a case that impacted me viscerally enough to share two personal stories. TW: Rape, Sexual Assault.
The media is swimming [pun very much unintended] with reports about the Brock Turner rape case, and it is not my purpose to reproduce the event here. If you haven’t heard about it already a cursory Google search will fill you in, but, in short, Brock Turner raped an unconscious young woman on the Stanford University campus where he was a student. She seemed almost comatose according to the witnesses who caught Turner in the act, stopped him, chased him away and reported him to the Police. She has no memory of the rape itself and had to be informed of what had happened to her by nurses when she woke up alone in a hospital. If you haven’t done so already, you must read her wonderful 12-page letter to Turner in which she tries to explain (apparently to no avail) the gravity of what he did to her, as well as how it has affected her since it happened over a year ago. Her words are powerful, raw, necessary. She, like others, defy the stereotypes surrounding victimhood. Turner was convicted on three felony counts, which would usually carry a maximum sentence of fourteen years, but the Judge sentenced him to just six months in county jail (which will probably be transmuted to three for good behaviour) because he had glowing character references, no previous criminal record and, finally, because he wouldn’t cope well in prison. Not because he suffered from some sort of debilitating mental illness, but because of his sheltered upbringing.
In spite of the conviction, Turner has not admitted to rape. The only mistake he claims to have made is that of drinking too much, and he has vowed to initiate a programme teaching college students the dangers of excessive drinking. Lucky them, potential students of Palo Alto’s most enlightened pedagog, I’m sure. What’s more, in a plea written to the Judge a childhood friend makes the ludicrous claim that the accusations levied against him are just down to “political correctness”. I daren’t even waste words explaining that one. His father doesn’t think his son should be so harshly punished for “just 20 minutes of action”, especially when he was such a good student and a good athlete. This is hugely insulting to victims of all crimes not to mention incredibly skewed logic.
He’s a great swimmer, didn’t you know? Pipped for the Olympics, I hear. He was a good student, too. He does attend Stanford, after all. Hence the headlines that lament his fall from grace. Because this ordeal has ruined his future. Turner is worryingly unable to take responsibility for an incident where he was the active agent not the passive victim. He is the only one who has ruined his future, and, worse still, he has potentially ruined someone else’s.
The fact that we continue to protect white men over and above anyone else is a clear illustration of the fact that white male supremacy is alive and well. Let’s be real about how fast they would have thrown his black counterpart in jail. (In fact, a day after I wrote the first draft of this post I read about Brian Banks, an African-American male who was also a promising athlete. He was wrongfully accused of rape at the age of sixteen, tried as an adult and sentenced to 41 years – life in prison). Moreover, the way in which this case has been presented in a lot of mainstream media is a blatant reproduction of the myth that rapists must all fit society’s mould of a Rapist. Rapists can’t be athletes, or straight-A students.You couldn’t possibly find one on the campus of prestigious Stanford University. Well guess what folks but a rapist might look just like me or you!
This case is one of countless instances of the powerful cocktail of racial and gender privilege. It is an instance that makes me despair at how much work there is left to do to end discrimination of all kinds. I often wonder if equality is just a utopian dream. I am almost convinced that I won’t see it in my lifetime. However, the good thing is that most people think that the sentence does not fit the crime and have spoken out about it, lending support to this woman and, in turn, to so many others who have felt that justice was not on their side. There is even a petition with nearly 500,000 signatures to recall the Judge for his lenient decision.
Unfortunately, I’m sure that all too many women can empathise with the woman in case. Indeed, this case brought back horrible memories for me of two unrelated events.
- When I was sixteen I was arrested. I was wrongfully accused of creating a defamatory Facebook quiz about staff at my school because a photo I had taken and uploaded had been used in the quiz, linking my account to it. Facebook promptly confirmed that my account had not created the quiz. I thought that was the end of it. At this point I had been excluded and it wasn’t certain that I would be allowed to take up my place at the Sixth Form in September. (I remember my dad calling all of the schools in the area to see if they’d be willing to let me in). Then I was arrested, searched, my cheek swabbed (I can’t think why, given that there was no physical – only cyber – evidence), I had to defend myself for nearly twelve hours of questioning because all we could afford was the cheapest solicitor who, although lovely, was very inexperienced. The Police Officer who had questioned believed my innocence, but his superior wanted to make an example of me because it was apparently one of the first instances of such a cyber crime. Ultimately I was given two options: I could either accept a reprimand or take the case to court, where I risked being convicted. I would have also had to have stayed in jail overnight before being released on bail. Not wanting to launch into a financially and emotionally taxing trial, I accepted the reprimand and was allowed to go home that day. As a result of changes in legislature a few years ago, this reprimand will never be removed from my criminal record, and so according to a DBS check I have committed harassment. It was hugely traumatic for me as an innocent goody two shoes child. As an adult, it is at best an inconvenience and at worst an embarrassment to tell employers about it. To convince them that I don’t harass people. I had never been in trouble in my life, I was a model student, but my character references were never held up in my favour. I wish somebody had considered that I wouldn’t fare well in a prison cell. I wish somebody (but my wonderful parents) had vouched for me: emphasised that I was a kind and diligent student who would never harass anyone. I wish my school had emphasised how young I was when I “committed the crime”: fifteen. I guess you only get that treatment if you’re a white man. I’ve heard people say that Brock Turner was too young to know better! He was nineteen for crying out loud!! His father said: “As he got older and progressed in school, he needed my intervention less and less as he is gifted in his ability to understand very complicated subject matter.” As if any of that matters here. Apparently the very simple (and yet so frequently misunderstood) subject matter of consent was too complicated for the “gifted” Turner.
- Five years later I found myself reporting a crime, rather than being arrested. I was sexually assaulted while I was on my year abroad in France and encouraged by various parties to report it. When I made my report I was accused of being a prostitute. (Even if I had been a prostitute, I still would not have deserved to have been raped – let’s dispel that myth right now). The Policeman asked: Vous attendez quoi quand vous portez une jupe comme ça? (What do you expect when you wear a skirt like that?) He laughed as I cried hysterically – confused, shocked, probably drugged. The words of his partner, a much kinder Police Officer, a woman, echo in my mind: Il faut aller jusqu’au bout. (You have to go through with this, go right to the very end). I tried, and months later he was arrested. It even transpired that there were complaints about him on the system from other women. I thought, This is it! Surely they have enough evidence to convict him! But he was released and nothing ever happened to him. The connection I made between this and the Turner case is not just the fact that another white man got away with a serious crime, but that I initially harboured a lot of guilt (normal for victims of sexual assault and rape), and was worried that my reporting this man would ruin his life. I didn’t look at it in the sense that he was ruining his own life and the lives of others by grooming women on the Internet because I simply was not taught to. I failed to consider how my life might be affected. My future. My relationships. Did I really value myself less than this horrible stranger? Why do some women end up thinking that they need to protect men who commit heinous crimes? Because we are all conditioned to think that women are inferior to men.
If we continue to use people’s unrelated achievements to detract from the gravity of sexual assault and rape, if we continue to place men’s future prospects over women’s we are quite clearly reinforcing the message that women aren’t as important as men. We are reinforcing sexism that is not insidious but really very obvious. It’s as simple as that.
*Photo is an excerpt from the victim’s letter to Brock Turner.