A BLOG BY SHANNON FISHER
Unless you have been intentionally avoiding the news this week, chances are you’ve heard about the Stanford rape case. The ultra-light sentencing of 20-year-old perpetrator, Brock Turner, has gripped the nation. Persistent media coverage has sparked outrage, and our faith in the justice system has been tested. There were some successes in the handling of this sexual assault case, though, and those should not go without comment. In that vein, the case’s failures could be equally helpful to reducing sexual assault in the endgame.
The kid-glove judicial response to Brock Turner’s raping of an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. As a society, we are finally internalizing the reality that our collective attitudes about sexual assault, however subconscious or well-intended, are exacerbating the problem!
The irrefutable facts of his crime, combined with discordant sentencing and a lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrator, have driven Americans to near-unanimous agreement that the judge and parole board – as well as character witnesses for the perpetrator, and the young man himself – have shown a distinct lack of reverence, perspective, and understanding of the gravity of his crime.
Here, we have a clear-cut rape case in which what happened cannot be denied or questioned. Not only were the charges against Brock Turner fully corroborated by physical evidence and witnesses, but the victim was unconscious – also corroborated – and, therefore, no one could claim that she was making false accusations. In fact, she heard about the details of her assault the same way we did: on the news.
This has all the makings of a signed, sealed, and delivered rape case: an assault substantiated with significant physical evidence, a jury conviction of three felony counts, a brave and eloquent victim whose impact statement was powerful enough to move news anchors to tears, and the witness testimony of two good Samaritans who rescued the victim and detained the perpetrator until police arrived. Had it not been for those two men on bicycles, there might have been no criminal case to prosecute. Witnesses and bystanders can mean the difference between someone paying for his or her crimes or that person walking away unencumbered by consequence.
Everything seems clear cut except for the fact that the rapist, at first glance, appears to be the unlikeliest of perpetrators. Further examined, this young man known for his politeness and athletic prowess was capable of acts that could not be fathomed by those holding him in high esteem. That perception clouded the perspective of those asking for, and delivering, lenient sentencing.
No deference was paid to the victim by the perpetrator, his supporters, or the judge and parole board. Instead of regret for having committed the sexual assault itself, Brock Turner and his supporters lamented the adverse effect his actions would have on his own promising future, all the while seeking pity for what has been taken from him throughout this ordeal.
Thankfully, the public scrutiny of these attitudes brought about attitude adjustments very quickly. His character witnesses withdrew their statements. His father was pummeled over his letter to the judge stating a prison sentence was too high a price to pay for “20 minutes of action.” Nearly a million people (and counting) have signed a petition for the removal of the judge from the bench. Brock’s supporters might not have understood the gravity or lingering consequences of the crime before the story reached the general public, but the internet has a way of schooling people very quickly.
Rape has been a heated online debate topic in recent years, and – while it is not in any way a political issue – opinions about sexual assault have become divided largely along party lines. Growing more vocal about the epidemic of rape in America seems to be a natural byproduct of women working together to raise awareness of other social and political issues. There has been a swift and fierce political push-back against the resurgence of feminism, which has also bred a push-back against public awareness campaigns run by women’s organizations. This is likely the cause of the partisan divide regarding highly publicized rape cases.
Strides were slowly being made toward unity, and then the UVA/Rollng Stone debacle set anti-rape advocacy back a decade or more. There is nothing that can fuel the “women lie about rape” narrative than the story of a woman who indeed, it appears, fabricated her story. So, after decades of seeing ripped-from-the-headlines stories on Law and Order SVU, well-publicized Take Back the Night rallies, Lifetime movies, flash-in-the-pan news stories about perpetrators from prep schools, prestigious universities, and every town, USA—we were right back where we started: fighting an uphill battle to reveal the deep-rooted culture that breeds rape on campuses, in the military, and in everyday social interaction.
Steubenville got the conversation started. Remember the football players who were revered as hometown heroes but had fallen victim to the clutches of a cruel, spiteful, vengeful rape victim? The victim who had gone to a party with friends she trusted who carried her limp, unconscious body from house to house and raped her on camera? That was another case of irrefutable evidence that ended with lenient sentences for perpetrators who were star athletes who were pitied for having been forced to go through the horrific ordeal of being prosecuted, convicted, and punished for their crimes. In Steubenville, as in most cases of sexual assault where the victim goes public, the victim was vilified and persecuted. Despite videotaped evidence of the rape and witness testimony, she was called a liar and a whore and ostracized by her community.
This is what makes the Brock Turner case that much more extraordinary: the victim, while scrutinized, was not crucified – nor was the sexual assault ever doubted. That created a ripple effect that allowed the case to be fairly tried. It also created a model for how to handle a sexual assault case.
Women now have a very public role model of a victim strong enough to speak out who was not vilified. In fact, she is viewed by many, including Vice President Joe Biden (the author of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act), as “a warrior — with a solid steel spine.”
There are other models in this case to emulate, as well, that might not seem as obvious – but could possibly have an even more indelible effect on combating rape culture:
Bystanders will remember the story of two men on bicycles who saw something happening that didn’t look right and stepped in to investigate and take action to help.
Young men have seen that “20 minutes of action” can ruin their lives, their reputation, and that of their families, friends, guidance counselors, and others who ignore the severity of their crimes. Brock Turner’s name was trending on social media all week, and every news outlet has reported the story during a week when many national and worldwide stories were also deserving of (and receiving) media attention.
While his sentence was viewed as much too lenient, and he will only serve three months of his short six-month jail sentence, I think Karma will sort this one out. The public shame will likely harm him Brock Turner far more than a few years in a state penitentiary, and he has been banned for life by USA Swimming.
A jury convicted a community-celebrated perpetrator, despite his purported upstanding societal status. Judges and parole boards have seen the wrath of the public when inappropriate leniency is applied due to (what can only be assumed as) a societal bias toward looking the other way when crimes are committed by people who do not appear to be a further “danger to society,” minimizing the lasting impact a sexual assault has on a victim.
We’ve come together in angst and horror over Brock Turner’s case and the way it was handled. I’m glad we’re mad. Let’s use that angst. And remind ourselves of it. And talk to our kids about it. When the acute anger subsides and the story fades into the background, let’s retain the lessons learned. Read the victim’s statement. Internalize it. And do everything in your power to ever let something like this from happening to anyone again. Regardless of your age or life circumstances, you WILL be in a position to stop a sexual assault from occurring – however indirectly. Please take that responsibility seriously.
It takes a village. Let’s make the collective safety and well-being of every member of our village a high priority and impart that mindset upon everyone we know and love. Many lives depend on it.