Does the Reaction to the Stanford Rapist Signal a Cultural Shift?

By now you’ve probably heard that Stanford student Brock Allen Turner was sentenced to only 6 months in prison for raping an unconscious woman at a party. You’ve probably also heard his father shamelessly attempt to downplay Turner’s actions as “20 minutes of action”.

Hopefully, you’ve also read the letter written by the rape survivor. In it, she breaks down many of the myths around rape, myths Turner’s defence used to attack her testimony and represent Turner as some kind of victim instead. Her heartbreaking personal account has broken down the defences of almost everyone who has read it (except Turner and his father, it would seem). According to Buzzfeed, one of the main sites to release her letter, her words have “gone viral” in a way few conversations about sexual assault ever do.

And as the word has spread, almost everyone has gotten behind this brave woman. Her story has brought light to the problem of systemic injustices, like light penalties for many cases of sexual assault and disproportionate penalties based on racial or economic background.

More than anything her story has prompted a united public outrage. Every comment I have read expresses distain and anger towards Turner and sympathy for his victim. Even internet trolls who would normally find a reason to challenge the victim’s story (i.e. some members of the Men’s Rights Reddit page) admit that “outrage over this issue is legitimate” (although their comments inevitably lead back to criticizing feminism).

In some ways it’s encouraging to witness the attack on Brock Turner. It seems like we’re experiencing a massive shift in the way we talk about rape and sexual violence. As this story has unfolded we’ve seen few if any attempts to slut shame or victim blame in the media or public conversation.

As glad as I am that this conversation has come out in favour of the victim, I can’t help but wonder if the public condemnation of Turner actually signals for a yearning for justice, or if perhaps other factors are at play. I’ve been struggling with two questions in particular.

1. Does the crowd want justice or blood?

Don’t get me wrong, there have certainly been legitimate attempts to demand justice. For example, a petition demanding that Judge Persky to be recalled from the bench has already reached 742,298 signatures at the time of this writing. This organized effort to draw attention to the injustice of his ruling could force him to more carefully consider the victim’s position in his future rulings. It also highlights the organized efforts of those who want to see a change in the justice system.

What seems considerably less helpful is the massive influx of anonymous and abusive threats directed towards Judge Persky and Brock Turner’s family.

The hypocrisy of those who want to punish rape with rape is an unfortunate reminder that many people don’t actually want a better justice system, they just want revenge.

2. Would Turner’s victim have received such strong support if there were’t any male witnesses?

The fact that there were two male witnesses that stopped the assault from progressing only solidified Turner’s guilt in the public eye. In her letter, Turner’s victim asks what would have happened if those two men hadn’t come along to help her. Now that these two men have been featured so prominently in the news I also can’t help but wonder how her story would have been told if it had relied on her testimony alone.

Throughout the trial, Turner’s victim was forced to defend herself against questions meant to challenge the validity of her testimony:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name. After a physical assault, I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me, to say see, her facts don’t line up, she’s out of her mind, she’s practically an alcoholic, she probably wanted to hook up, he’s like an athlete right, they were both drunk, whatever, the hospital stuff she remembers is after the fact, why take it into account, Brock has a lot at stake so he’s having a really hard time right now.

For many victims of sexual assault, this attack often continues in media representations. A problem she highlights in her conclusion,

… to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you.

I really do want to believe that I live in a culture where sexual assault is taken seriously – a culture where we believe victims and find ways to support them when these traumatic events take place. The backlash to the Stanford rape seems to suggest that our attitude towards sexual assault is changing; unfortunately, I have a few nagging questions that make me think we just aren’t there yet.

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