Stigma, rape culture, and the stanford swimmer

I know this is a departure from an anxiety-focused entry, but I’ve been finding myself ruminating about this for the past few days and it’s just too important not to talk about. There are some tie-ins to mental health issues like stigma and trauma, but I feel like I need to warn you if you’re sensitive to discussions of sexual assault.

 

There are a lot of things wrong with the Standford rape case. A lenient judge, an ignorant father, white privilege, male privilege, the act itself and its traumatic aftermath. I’ll get into some of those things, but the first thing we need to talk about is rape culture.

Rape culture is the normalization of (primarily) male sexual violence. It is victim blaming. It is the systematic denial of a victim’s rights by inadequately punishing their assaulter. It is a lack of empathy. It is patriarchy. It is violation. Rape culture is a 20-year-old male not seeing anything wrong with forcefully penetrating an unconscious woman. Rape culture is a young woman having to explain to her rapist and to the judge, who is sworn to uphold the law, why she is a victim. Rape culture is a father asking for a lenient sentence for his son because it was only “20 minutes of action”. Rape culture is a young man who assaulted multiple women being quietly transferred to another college with a clean record. Rape culture is an article that gives graphic details about an assault also giving the aggressor’s swim times, as if they matter. Rape culture is the millions of victims who stay quiet from pressure, fear, or a sense of futility. Rape culture is the millions of people who, in a moment of vulnerability, discover that they are, in fact, not alone, but never knew it because no one talks about their assault the way we talk about gun crimes. Rape culture is 300,000 women raped per year, but we don’t talk about it. Rape culture is a 1 in 5 chance of a woman being raped in her lifetime. Rape culture is saying she was “asking for it” because of how she was dressed. Rape culture is 97% of rapists who are never incarcerated. Rape culture is a judge who, when faced with a defendant convicted of three major felonies by a jury who clearly recognizes the seriousness of the crimes, gives that defendant less than the minimum sentence because it would have a “severe impact” on him.

Let’s talk about “severe impact”. The following things have happened to Brock Turner as a result of his actions, the trial, and the subsequent sentencing: he has had to register as a sex offender, he lost his appetite, and he lost his swimming scholarship and is banned from Stanford. He has to spend six months in jail but can get out after three if he demonstrates good behavior, and then will spend three years on probation.

That is not severe. Severe is the horror of realizing what has happened to you not because you remember it, but because you read about it on the news and realize just how disgusting it is that someone did this to you when you were unconscious. And the further horrific understanding that they didn’t think anything was wrong with this behavior. Severe is being enduring hours of questioning that makes what happened to you sound like it was your fault. Severe is trying to rebuild friendships that have never really recovered from the fact that you both knew your attacker and they thought he was a “good guy”. Severe is the loss of your closest friend because they chose your assaulter over you. Severe is when someone

sexually assaulted me and at least three other mutual friends and several other women we didn’t know. He would offer, like all the guys did then, to walk one of us back to our dorm after dark, then he’d use those opportunities to force himself on one of us. We each thought we were the only one. He took advantage of his perceived good-guy standing to terrorize multiple women, many of whom knew each other but doubted anyone would believe them and so stayed quiet. He was a talented opera singer, and I guess the school felt like the world needed one more opera singer more than women needed safety from a predator with an established MO. I don’t know what became of him after he was transferred to another school. He looked so much then like the guy in the Stanford case… perfectly clean cut, handsome, and privileged.

Severe is the mental and physical anguish that come from being violated, because rape is not only physical. Rape is mental, too. Not only is your body taken from you, but your sense of self is, too. And not just for the duration of the act. The PTSD, anxiety, and depression last, if not the rest of your life, then years. One third of rape victims have seriously contemplated suicide, and more than 30% have substance abuse problems. Rape is more than unwanted sexual intercourse. It is debilitating, harrowing, years long. And we’re not even talking about other types of sexual assault or repeated sexual assault.

I’m not an eye-for-an-eye type of person, but this is some fucking bullshit. Six months in jail AT MOST? This is despicable. This is rape culture. This is so much of what is wrong with our country, with traditional gender roles. I’m not advocating for some sort of crazy punishment, but this is most certainly not justice, and it is most certainly not fair to the victim. The fact that pretty much every sexual assault survivor knows multiple other sexual assault survivors is staggering. And many have not been through the legal system or received any kind of justice or reparations for what they went through. Many have not pressed charges or even told that many people about it. Someone I know only got a muttered “Sorry about that” from their assaulter after a friend – who didn’t know what had happened – tried to introduce them to this “amazing” person, who, it turns out, already knew them more intimately than they cared to talk about, and not by their choice.

There are many issues at work here, one being the physical and mental violation of rape and sexual assault. But there are bigger issues: rape and sexual assault are the intersection of privilege and stigma. Both give the aggressor the too-often-true assumption that they will get away with it. The letter from Brock Turner’s father shows that Turner grew up in a world where it was permissible – maybe even encouraged – to take what you want, when you want it, regardless of anyone else’s preference or consent. And his sentence teaches him that he was, in fact, correct in his thinking when he decided to rape “Emily Doe”, because he did basically get away with it. This trial and the sentence he has to serve will someday be a distant memory for him – as he doesn’t appear to feel any remorse for his actions – while “Emily” and her family have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives. Turner’s father’s letter underscores that this is not just a current problem; this intersection of privilege and stigma has existed longer than any of us can truly stomach. It has been institutionalized and, in some communities, is handed down as though it is a sacred tradition. As though it is proper. As though it is not the complete and utter subjugation of a person’s body and will.

We as a society have failed “Emily Doe”, and we have failed Brock Turner. How was he supposed to learn that this is wrong when he grew up a world where it clearly was not? How did Turner not learn in his 20 years of life – a life with presumed access to all sorts of experiences and people – what is so utterly, utterly wrong with what he did? How is he going to learn to take responsibility for his behavior when he’s not even really being held accountable for it? The sentence he received sends him the message that he shouldn’t feel remorseful, and so he has exhibited none. He is not truly being held accountable for his actions, and so there is no need for him to feel responsibility or remorse. No one is really telling him that this was not ok.

I’m proud of the outrage that people are expressing through social media and petitions. I’m proud of how many people recognize that this behavior and sentencing are unacceptable. I’m proud of the thoughtful, nuanced responses I’ve seen from my friends and family. I’m proud that people feel called to take action and are doing so. That speaks well of us.

But we still face the challenge of the pervasiveness of privilege and stigma, which are literally everywhere. If we have an issue with Brock Turner’s actions, then we need to do something about it. And not just demanding a harsher sentence; we need to widen the conversation. We need to talk about our own experiences so that we can break down the stigma and stop victim-blaming. We need to instill in our young people compassion and empathy, and we need to give them opportunities to practice, especially with regards to people who are not like them. I love that this conversation is happening, but it needs to be happening more.We cannot break down the stigma if we stay silent about our own experiences or only talk about the issue when a high-profile case is making the rounds. We have to actively do this work.

We have an obligation to explicitly educate our young people about consent. We have to teach them what it is and how to talk about it. We have to teach them the difference between actual consent and assumption of consent. We have to teach them how to navigate non-verbal consent. It might be tricky, it might be scary, it might be really, really uncomfortable, but the only way this conversation will grow and attitudes will start to change is to talk about it. Confronting stigma – any stigma – is hard. The stigma exists because the work is hard, it causes us to be vulnerable, it brings feelings of fear and shame. But we have to. This is the world we live in and we owe it to the young people that we are responsible for to prepare them for it. We owe it to ourselves, too.

 

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