Christine Rice examines Judge Persky’s sentencing of Brock Turner and is shocked that rape is a gray area for some folks in this day and age. Rice’s essay spells it out in no uncertain terms.
Twenty years ago, in a writing class I taught, a young woman wrote a fictional scene that involved a group of teenage boys assaulting a drunk girl at a party. It was a powerfully written scene; I will never forget it. We read the scene in class (as we do with all well-written scenes) and discussed it as a class and, at one point, I referred to that fictional moment as a “gang rape.” Immediately, one young man scoffed, “That wasn’t rape. She didn’t even know what was going on.”
I stopped. The other students looked confused. Had I misunderstood something?
I felt like I’d entered an alternate reality. Of course that was rape. I remember struggling to control my temper when I asked, “Did the girl in the scene have a choice in the matter?”
Most of the students kept quiet. This was new territory. A rapist, we’d been taught, was someone who tackled you from behind in a dark alley … not someone you’ve spoken to at a party, not an acquaintance, not a date, not a promising young athlete on the swim team.
The young man persisted. “That wasn’t rape.”
I went on to explain that, yes, having nonconsensual sex with a person, in this particular case, a drunk person, is absolutely, positively rape.
Black and white. Clear-cut. No question.
Fast forward to last week’s sentencing of former Stanford student athlete and current rapist Brock Turner. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky might as well have been that woefully misinformed student in my class twenty years ago because you know he was thinking the same thing: that’s not rape.
Has the needle not moved one iota in two decades?
In this Mercury News opinion piece, the paper acknowledges that the two cyclists who happened upon Brock Turner—on top of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster—and District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office, and the jury, recognized Brock Turner’s actions as rape. Disturbingly, the man with the power to punish him, to put Turner away for a significant amount of time, Judge Aaron Persky, somehow disagreed. Instead of sentencing him to serious prison time, he let him off with a six-month jail sentence.
Twenty years ago, there was very little conversation around this topic. But it is 2016. There is absolutely no reason why a judge (unless he or she has been sequestered in a bunker for the past twenty years) in his right mind would let a rapist off this easily … unless the judge somehow identified strongly with the criminal.
Twenty years ago, we were just starting to identify this kind of behavior as criminal. We didn’t even have a lexicon to discuss it, we didn’t have words to describe it, there was no Internet, you had to find someone who’d also experienced this kind of assault to even have a conversation.
We see what we want to see. We see people through our own experiences. Brock Turner resembles Judge Persky. Brock Turner, according to Judge Persky, committed an error in judgment, not a crime. Judge Persky was also a college athlete, went to Stanford, is white, and is a man. In other words, because he saw himself in Brock Turner, Brock Turner didn’t deserve to be seriously punished for raping an unconscious woman.
This is sickening and wrong.
It is also incredibly dangerous. It’s dangerous because, in those twenty years since I argued with my student about the definition of rape, this verdict proves unequivocally that the “boys will be boys” mentality doggedly persists, that the profoundly disturbing frequency of campus rape is still not taken seriously, that women will continue to hesitate before calling an attack “rape” and that, in the end, they will simply not report these attacks.
So what will it take for the judicial system (and for other institutions whose job it is to protect vulnerable people) to take this epidemic seriously? In this piece by Madison Pauly in Mother Jones, it is clear that campus sexual assaults are grossly underreported and that, according to Pauly, “… some schools had designed their victim assistance systems in ways that led to nearly every report being designated as ‘confidential,’ keeping official tallies of campus sex offenses low.”
As a parent, I warn my daughters of this very real threat. I know parents explain to their sons the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex. In the end, however, this is all you can do. You can’t be with your child every moment, at every party, whispering in their ear, Remember, darling, do not attack another person.
You have to let the child’s moral compass guide them.
Let’s look at it another way. If you were at a party and someone was crazy drunk, would you be a decent person? Would you help that person get home, or into a cab, or make sure he or she was safe?
Of course you would. You sure as shit wouldn’t take her behind a dumpster and assault her. Only a criminal would do that.
A character witness of the rapist has said that political correctness “has clouded our judgment” in this case. Here’s an excerpt from the full letter published in Business Insider.
“I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
First … this just makes no sense at all.
Second … a rape is committed by a rapist. Period.
Third … let’s stop worrying about how a rapist’s punishment will impact his life. Instead, let’s start worrying about the victim. For context, read Lindsey Bever’s Washington Post article and the young victim’s incredibly moving court statement.
Let’s take this misguided “political correctness” reasoning a step further. During my fifty-some years, I know that I have been politically incorrect. But I read and am aware and am open to new ideas and viewpoints and facts. I try my very best to avoid insulting someone because of ignorance. I realize that I’m not always successful. It is a constant learning curve.
But political correctness has absolutely nothing to do with an intentional physical sexual assault. Do not confuse criminal behavior with political correctness.
Can you imagine doing what Brock Turner did? Have you done something like this yourself? If so, you might be predisposed to identifying with the rapist and letting the rapist off with a slap on the wrist.
When I teach downtown, I park in a six-story parking structure. Last month, as I waited for the elevator in the lobby, a tall man walked in behind me. We both got on the elevator and, as usual, I positioned myself so I could keep an eye on him.
As the elevator moved up, this guy—powerfully built with sandy bangs falling onto his forehead, wearing a conference badge and too-short slacks—started looking intently at the ceiling. This particular elevator, by the way, is the world’s slowest.
I’m thinking, He’s looking for a camera.
“There’s no camera in this elevator,” he observed.
Heart pounding, I squared off, anticipating … what? An attack? Yeah … because, really, who would be that completely clueless?
He must have sensed my concern and laughed. “Oh, no. You don’t have to worry about me. I was just making an observation.”
But here’s the thing: he laughed. As if I were the silly one. As if I should have innately assumed that he posed no threat.
Jaw set, tense, I kept my eye on him. As the doors opened and he moved out of the elevator, still smirking, he added, “I’m the last person you have to worry about.”
I didn’t relax until the doors closed behind him.