The Stanford swimmer rape case is hugely infuriating, because it reveals the rape myths that still police men and women, and have an enormous influence on how crimes are perceived. This comes as no surprise to me, as someone who devotes much of their time to debunking these myths, but let’s lay it out, and see what exactly is going on.
Myth 1: The Lives of Young, White Men are More Important than the Women They Violate
From the beginning, the lenient sentence that Brock Turner received (just 6 months) made us suspect that his needs were being privileged over those of the victim. The letter written by Turner’s father only cemented that feeling. Dan Turner wrote about how the upheaval to the family and diminished career prospects were ‘a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.’ This was of course quickly undermined, because a murder that takes ten minutes is not punished more lightly than a one that takes 24 hours! Turner’s father does not recognize that twenty minutes can change the course of a person’s life, and it certainly changed the life course of the victim, who has been subjected not only to the first assault, but also to the second violation that comes from the scrutiny of the courts and justice system.
This focus on the victimhood of perpetrators is completely wrong-headed, but as Michael Kimmel has pointed out, many white men do see themselves as victims, not realizing the extent of their privileges. You can see the same thing in the Steubenville rape case, where Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were sentenced in Stebenville, Ohio for raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party and sharing photographs of the act on social media. Framing the scrutiny of the media as intrusive, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow focused on the happiness that had been promised to the perpetrators, and their roles in traditional family narratives of contentment as ‘star football players’ and conscientious students. The obstruction to their happiness was, of course, the girl who was raped, and as so often in the media, the survivor was portrayed as a kind of killjoy ruining the prospects of two otherwise faultless young men.
Myth 2: Women Who Are Drunk Deserve What They Get
Also controversial has been the letter that Turner’s childhood friend wrote to the judge. Leslie Rasmussan commented in particular on the issue of alcohol and the victim’s conduct, stating ‘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.’ It’s the same old victim-blaming, which distracts from the perpetrator and his behavior. If I have to wheel out the Cup of Tea Meme again, I will. It does not matter one bit what the woman was doing, there was always a moral choice involved, and if you would not give an unconscious person a cup of tea, then you should not be trying to have sex with them.
Myth 3: Seemingly Nice Guys aren’t Real Rapists
In fact, Rasmussan expresses more than one rape myth in her statements about Turner. In another significant comment, she defended her views by stating that ‘rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.’ This comment recalls Whoopi Goldberg’s gaffe, when she described the anal rape of thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer by Roman Polanski as ‘not rape-rape.’ One of the biggest challenges facing those who seek to educate people about rape myths is that rape is not a single type of experience. It manifests itself in different ways, and it is experienced differently in different contexts.
The most common misconception is that rape is an attack by a monstrous criminal in a dark alley – what we call stranger rape. But, it is not just obviously criminal individuals who rape. A rapist can be a father, brother, work colleague, or friend, and sometimes even women rape. It can happen in acquaintance rape, date rape, marital rape, and in the context of domestic violence. Sometimes seemingly ‘nice’ guys commit rape, and they certainly should not be given lighter sentences because they seem ‘nice.’
Myth 4: White Guys Don’t Deserve to Go to Prison
The New York Daily News brought focus to another issue: that of race; since it highlighted cases where the black perpetrators of crimes were received heavy sentences. This was not meant to argue for lighter sentences in general, but to note the inequality. Turner is a sympathetic perpetrator just for being ‘nice,’ but no such sympathy is shown for a young black man who commits rape after being a drug addict with an absent father and a mother who died of cancer. Some lives, it seems, are valued more than others, and the case recalled Daniel Holtclaw, a very successful serial rapist and police officer (who identified as white) in Oklahoma City, who targeted black women in particular. The specter of ruined lives came up again when Holtzclaw was sentenced, and photographs of him crying were circulated, but what about his black victims?
Myth 5: The Rape Victim as Killjoy
There are probably more myths at work here if you dig deeper, but the biggest myth of all is that the victim of such a crime is a killjoy (see Sara Ahmed on killjoys), a harbinger of misery and gloom. Onlookers seem to ask, why can’t she just cheer up, and leave us alone? But there are those of us who take entitlement to women’s bodies and the disrespect of violation very seriously. In my final word on this, here is my advice to the parties involved.
My message to Leslie Rasmussen:
I know that you love your friend, and you want to help and support him, but you need to think about what you are saying. However much you would like to excuse this crime, you cannot take Brock Turner’s responsibility away from him. He has to face the consequences, and doing so might make him a better person. It does not matter how much alcohol the victim drank. It was always a moral choice, and there is no question that if someone is unconscious, there is no way that there can ever be consent.
My message to Brock Turner:
The consequences of your actions have been considerable, not only to you, but to the victim. You have to face what you have done and learn from this experience. Not even the victim wants you to suffer by rotting away in prison, but she does want you to take responsibility, and admit that what you did was wrong. If you do that, you might find peace, and you have to learn that what men are taught about being entitled to women’s bodies is pernicious and dysfunctional. You can be better than this.
My message to the unnamed woman who experienced the rape:
It is you who has suffered most of all in this scenario, and I want to tell you that I have faith in you. Sometimes women who experience rape are represented as broken forever, never able to heal, but I want to tell you that this is not right. I don’t want to say that one day you will simply be fine. It won’t be easy, and some days will be better than others, but you can be happy, and you will be. So many of us are with you: you are not on your own.
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