By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the joke sentencing of rapist Brock Turner.
You’ve probably also seen his victim’s searing 12-page indictment, and maybe you’ve even seen Brock’s father’s preciously written, tone-deaf “defense” of his son (WHO NO LONGER EATS STEAK OR WANTS SNACKS!! Wahhh!), which turns out to be the embodiment of several key points in Brock’s victim’s scathing statement. There’s also a Change.org petition calling for the removal of Judge Aaron Persky (for showing bias toward a particular class).
No doubt about it, the entire thing–start to finish–is a stunning example of rape culture and systems of oppression in action.
Rape culture is the normalization of rape. It is the interrogation of a victim’s past and the mourning of a rapist’s potential and future. It is the systemic devaluing of women’s bodies/lives and the systemic valuing of rich, white, male lives.
Look, here’s how it works, and how it has always worked: You can drag an unconscious person behind a dumpster while scraping her head on the ground, remove her clothing, and then get caught in the actual act of raping her.
There can be witnesses and zero doubt that a brutal crime took place. In fact, you can try to run away when you are caught by two bystanders, and one can even tackle you to the ground. (Why did you run if you are not guilty of a crime? Why didn’t you tell them to go talk to your consenting partner to get the whole thing straightened out?)
The person you raped can go to the hospital and endure a brutally invasive exam that confirms everything the eyewitnesses saw when they interrupted. You can even be charged with FIVE felonies.
Then, if you’re white and male and young, and especially if you go to a really good school and you’re an athlete, you can get sentenced to what will amount to THREE MONTHS (after time served) in county jail for a crime that would cost someone in a different identity bracket a DECADE or more of their life in prison.
This is white supremacy. This is misogyny and classism and rape culture.
It is also bullshit.
There should be no doubt–and there has never been, for many of us–that the system does not exist to protect victims; it exists to protect its own interests, which means perpetuating systems of power and privilege.
The system will, in its disinterest and tone deafness, repeatedly send messages to men that raping someone is probably not that big a deal, even if you’re caught in the act. As Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber noted, there’s also a message for women: “[Judge] Aaron Persky is telling these women don’t bother calling police.”
All this will perpetuate rape culture and patriarchal values. The system –which is made up of actual human beings like Judge Persky with a lot of power–will violate victims a second time, only worse. And when that gets done enough in repetition, it starts becoming expected and normal.
In her article, “We With the Pitchforks,” Kristen Mae points out the failures of these systems and issues a call to arms, addressing Turner directly:
But I am going to do something to you that might be worse than jail, Brock Allen Turner. Actually, we all are. All of us who are enraged at what you did, at the fact that to this day you continue to deny wrongdoing aside from getting too drunk, that you continue to feign ignorance as to the egregiousness of your actions. All of us who are enraged by the fact that the not-very-honorable Judge Aaron Persky* was so clearly more concerned with your life than with your victim’s, together, we are going to put you in a new kind of jail.
We are going to splatter your name and face across social media so that everyone knows who you are and what you look like. So that everyone knows what you’ve done. So that women know that they’d better not get drunk in your presence…or even…be in your presence at all.
Responses like hers are important because Brock Turner, his father, and judge Persky continue to center Brock’s distress at the heart of the ordeal–hallmarks of male privilege. Brock and his father assert that the real perpetrators are alcohol and promiscuity (whose, though?). Even when there is an actual, identifiable victim in a brutal crime, we are still asked to pay attention to the feelings of the male perpetrator. In fact, the actual victim is nowhere to be found in Brock’s father’s statement.
Along those lines, folks on social media are calling out the Washington Post for its misogynistic reporting of the case. The article is littered with sycophantic descriptions of Turner’s career as a swimmer:
Turner turned down scholarships at a host of universities to attend Stanford, where he joined a top-10-in-the-country swim team. But on Jan. 17, 2015, midway through his freshman year and first swim season at Stanford, Turner’s life and career were upended during a night of drinking.
One Facebook user, Ellie Fialk, feels no pity for Turner and takes WaPo to task:
Thank you, Washington Post, for this detailed track record of Brock Turner’s swimming career, which is so incredibly relevant to the fact that he was just found unanimously guilty of committing an unforgivable act. I’m sorry things were so sudden for you, Brock. That your career was “upended during a night of drinking.” Since you know, that’s all it was, just a casual night of drinking when you raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
I’m so sorry, Brock, that you’ve suffered so greatly from your own actions. That you believe you are the victim. That this act has stripped you of your degree and titles at the age of 20. Yes, 20 is young, but not young enough to misinterpret an unconscious woman for sexual consent, nor young enough for the malicious and immoral nature of rape to go unrecognized. I do not pity you.
Brock was sentenced to only 6 months in jail, on the basis that, “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” As if being raped did not take a severe and irreversible emotional toll on the female victim. This boy is apparently too intelligent, too wealthy, too white, too athletic, to belong in jail.
But as his victim reminds us:
Ruin a life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.
The wounds on her body and psyche–both invisible and material–are wounds we all share. Rape culture is violence, a gash that never closes or heals, and it hurts us all.
Now what? Maybe some people have the patience and resources to pursue institutional, systemic, legal change, but I’d argue that’s a privilege of the few. In the meantime, the rest of us can do a little more than wring our hands.
We can, as Kristen Mae suggested, take up our pitchforks. And pitchforks can look like a lot of different things. Women and other marginalized people are no strangers to taking matters into our own hands when systems fail.
Here are some ideas:
- Use Brock Turner’s full name and mugshot when you share images of him. Be curious about the media’s use of Brock’s smiling, be-suited, teeth-gleaming yearbook photo. Wonder–preferably aloud and with other people–why that image was the first to circulate when dead kids of color who haven’t even committed a crime don’t get the same courtesy. Even if it wasn’t a case of ill intent, it matters because it adds to the racial bias and victim blaming. That stupid blazer photo is an act of violence.
- Name it. Do not permit passive, slippery, unethical language: Brock Turner raped someone. He did not, as his father suggested, experience “20 minutes of action.” That kind of imprecise wording lets Turner off the hook (without an active verb, there is no subject doing anything–it’s just a vague happening-thing), it minimizes the seriousness of the crime, and it completely erases the person he victimized in the process.
- Ask questions about why the rape of female bodies is treated differently than other violent crimes. A lot of shitty things, including murder, can happen in “20 minutes of action;” that doesn’t mean we let the perpetrators off the hook. Press yourself and the people around you to wonder what it is about rape that leads to preferential treatment for rapists. Could it be… DUN DUN DUN!… misogyny?
- Talk about the ways in which race and class compound gender oppression. There is no way in the world this would have played out at all the same had Turner been poor or a person of color. Let Shaun King tell you more about that if you’re not feeling it (or even if you are).
- If you live in Santa Clara County, California, vote Judge Aaron Persky out of office and push for his removal. He had a chance to do something just and surprising that might have challenged the prevailing narrative around rape and whose lives/bodies are valued, but he didn’t. Instead, he used his race, class, and gender bias to prop up oppression and rape culture–to excuse a rapist because Turner is too ambitious, too white, too rich, too educated for prison.
- Understand that this case is not an exception, but the rule. Look for patterns and connections. Be suspicious of the emphasis on Turner’s achievements and the scrutiny over his victim’s past. Call that what it is: rape culture. Bullshit. Violence. Misogyny.
- Interrogate your own privilege. Privilege is often invisible and becoming aware of it, finally, is usually uncomfortable. But you can survive it. In fact, it’ll be a piece of cake compared to surviving sexual assault and then the probable retraumatization at the hands of the legal system. The stakes are high and the risks to you are low, so what are you waiting for? Letting privilege go uninterrogated feeds oppression.
So, yeah. Keep talking. Don’t let it become a fast-fading “20 minutes of action” on the internet. Remember his name: Brock Allen Turner, Rapist.
Remember, too, that apart from his class, gender, and skin privilege, he is no one in particular.
People like him get away with rape all the time, and we should be outraged.