The Stanford rape victim won’t forget, but will we?
The story doesn’t end when the rapist receives probation, or is granted a temporary suspension.
Last week, Stanford swimmer, Olympic-hopeful and rapist, Brock Allen Turner faced a 14-year sentence for the public and brutal rape of an unconscious woman in January 2015. Ultimately, Turner received six months in a county jail and probation. It was yet another “slap-on-the-wrist” sentencing by the American legal system.
When it comes to campus sexual assault, this has become a narrative we are all painfully familiar with. Boy rapes girl. Boy gets caught (sometimes). Boy faces no consequences. If the case even makes it to court and happens to garner national attention because the perpetrator is a collegiate athlete, he is wrongfully sympathized by the media. He enters court holding his mother’s hand. His father publicly weeps for the future at stake and later weeps again after the verdict is read. “Insufficient evidence.” “She said yes.” Probation. Suspension. Olympic future still perfectly intact. Girl is forever traumatized.
On June 3, BuzzFeed published a letter penned by the victim that was read aloud at her perpetrator’s sentencing. While Turner prepares for those comfortable six months that will most likely become three for good behavior, his victim’s voice has been heard loud and clear.
The unidentified woman, told BuzzFeed News: “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”
Just three days after its publication date, her testimony has garnered nearly 5 million views and continues to circulate on all platforms of social media.
In a matter of days her disconcerting account of the assault has generated both the necessary dialogue regarding the measures that must be taken to end the epidemic that is campus sexual assault, as well as a letter of response from Turner’s father.
On Sunday, Dan A. Turner wrote an open letter about his disappointment in the verdict of the case, arguing his son’s jail sentence “isn’t an appropriate punishment.”
“As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of January 17 and 18,’ the letter begins.
“He will never be his happy go lucky (sic) self with that easy-going personality and welcoming smile.
‘His every waking moment is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear and depression.’
He then writes about his son’s affinity for cooking and Ribeye steaks, but is quick to add that he now only consumes food to “exist.”
“His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 years of life,” Turner continued.
He concluded the letter stating that as his father, probation and educating other students on “the dangers of alcohol and sexual promiscuity,” is a penalty better suited to his son.
On June 6, a letter to the judge from childhood friend of Turner, Leslie Rasmussen, surfaced. In it, she expounds upon Mr Turner’s letter, even including a dated photograph of the convicted sex offender smiling accompanied by a vehement denial that he could ever be a rapist, because “he was always the sweetest to everyone.” She later refers to the assault as, “a huge misunderstanding.”
We are collectively outraged by this narrative. Opinions spring forth with the vigor of a cluster of aggressive whiteheads on a hormonal teenager’s T-zone. Innumerable Facebook statuses are promptly posted. Twitter becomes even more of a mine field than usual. The voices of female reporters are saturated with emotion as they read excerpts of the victim’s testimony aloud. Legal pundits and women’s studies scholars spar on CNN. Activists call for the head of the judge. Online media outlets do not include the perpetrator’s mug shot, but instead his school portrait or a touching family photograph.
There are two narratives to these cases. The first being the actual assault and the legal proceedings that follow. The second is the reaction of the public. Initially, we are more than prepared to stand beside this victim until justice is served and we do. A verdict is read. The doors on the courtroom close. The news covers it for another night. Maybe two. Everyone goes to sleep and awakes with only a distant thought that the unidentified woman, the one that was found unconscious and assaulted behind a dumpster, still exists. Our tiny spark is snuffed out. A different sentencing or another letter will not change that.
I do not know what else can be done to make people continue to consider the life of the victim long after that verdict is read. In all honesty, I do not know what can be done to make them care any longer than a few days. The story does not end when the rapist blames, “party culture,” and receives probation, or is granted a temporary suspension. Where are we when he later plays for the NFL, or swims for the Olympics? In front of the television.
But where are we when the victim is weeping in the restroom at work for the third time that morning because a co-worker used the word “rape” in jest? Where are we when she is experiencing an episode as a result of PTSD? Where are we when the victim discovers she can no longer have sex while sober? Where are we when she develops an addiction to drugs or alcohol? Where are we when she is hospitalized? Where are we?
A faculty member at my high school alma mater recently sent me a link to a news story in which three women witnessed the drink of a fellow restaurant patron being roofied by her date. Not only did they prevent her from drinking it and from ultimately leaving with the man, but they also informed the restaurant manager. It was a rare success story, one that deserves every ounce of the attention it has received on social media. But that man with the mystery vial walks free today. If not his date that night, than certainly another unsuspecting woman.
“More must be done in schools to educate both girls AND boys. Imagine how powerful it would be if a girl were to address an all boy school and tell her story of being assaulted,” my former teacher later wrote to me. I agreed.
I take issue with several things in Mr. Turner’s letter. What I do concede with however, is that it is crucial for education to be implemented. But in this case, and all other cases of this nature, it is not limited to taking precautions when using alcohol or partaking in sexual activity. Mr. Turner’s inclusion of terms like, “sexual promiscuity,” is a direct indicator that the responsibility for the events of January 17th, has still not been placed on the individual that deserves it.
The ideal education is a program that functions to both prevent and recognize victim shaming and the further perpetuation of systemic rape culture. Students are primed for college academia from the time of prepubescence, yet the social injustices that occur on those campuses are not a part of the curriculum.
When I first stepped foot on campus at Ohio State as a student in 2012, I had not a single indication that campus sexual assault was not limited to the drunk girl stumbling home from the bar alone or being roofied at a fraternity party. My peers and I were not taught that there was more than one narrative for rape on campus. There is no excuse for administrators at every high school in this country not relaying that message.
If we heard directly from these young women as often as they become victims, how might we react? When these stories are comfortably nestled between puppy videos and lengthy statuses from distant relatives in our timelines, it is easy to care until our attention is captured elsewhere.
I have interviewed victims for the last two and a half years. Three of my friends are among that group. Only two were under the influence and at a party. Though I was not the one in four that was left behind a dumpster, I am the one in four that held them on the floor, wept alongside them, or wrote their story because they were unable to find their voice years after the fact.
I care because I know these women. I care because I love these women. I care because there is always time for me, or someone else in my life to become one of them. But to care is only the first step in enacting social change.
We are allowed to blame the perpetrator, his father, media representation, and a corrupt legal system. But at what point do we accept responsibility for our own thoughtlessness? It takes seconds to share a link or to tweet in solidarity, but what are we as a collective audience actually doing to better the life of this victim and the victims after her, for that matter?
In the concluding paragraph of her statement, Turner’s victim restated author, Anne Lamott’s words: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
We cannot save every boat, that I am certain of. Yet until progress surpasses a screen, I cannot help but doubt whether we are doing enough to cast an unrelenting light on campus sexual assault.
What will we do to ensure that no other young woman is publicly diminished to “twenty minutes of action,” ever again?