RED LODGE — At Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, we follow national news stories that deal with issues we see close to home. Lately, we’ve been following the media blitz about the Stanford rape case.
If you haven’t heard, at the beginning of June, Brock Turner, a Stanford student, was convicted by a jury of three counts of felony sexual assault. Sadly, Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner an extremely light sentence of six months in jail with a high likelihood that he would be out in three months. After this farce of justice, the victim went public with an eloquently written letter to the court and the rapist.
She expressed her story of the assault that night and the aftermath, making it very clear that what happened was not something she wanted, asked for, or invited. She was adamant that there is no sex without consent; it’s simply rape. In fact, her letter illustrated that this case was pretty much the textbook definition of rape—the rapist used one-sided power and the victim was unable to give consent.
The jury realized it, the victim knows it, but many people—including the judge, Turner’s father, and his probation officer—want to minimize Turner’s crime and shift the responsibility for his crime against an unconscious woman away from him. In short, they don’t want to call what he did what it was; they don’t want to call it rape. And they do not want to label Turner a rapist.
But that’s what he is: Brock Turner is a rapist. Trying to minimize or downplay what he did by talking about his achievements and his character shifts the responsibility for his crime away from him. Trying to explain away his choices and his actions so that maybe it wasn’t a sexual assault, maybe it wasn’t rape, it was just a one-time mistake, minimizes the crime.
And minimizing, explaining away, giving excuses about alcohol, partying, his swimming prowess, or anything else is only another way of saying that Turner didn’t rape someone. But he did. He assaulted a woman who was powerless and who could not give consent. That’s rape. The rape was his decision; the rape is his responsibility. Turner raped an innocent woman—someone’s sister, daughter, and girlfriend.
In conversations, in news article comment threads, in defense attorney statements, many people often try to focus on what the victim was doing, who she was with, or how she was dressed. However, focusing on the victim is another way of shifting the blame for the rape away from the rapist.
In her article, “Why do People Blame Rape Victims? On the Vicious Cycle of Victim-Blaming—and What We can do to Break It,” Suzannah Weiss sums up the problem with talking about the victim: “We live in a culture that not only blames sexual assault victims but also tells potential victims, especially women, that it is their duty to make sure they are not assaulted. From date-rape drug-detecting nail polish to difficult-to-remove underwear, the message is clear: We should be trying harder not to get raped.” We need to recognize that the responsibility for the crime of rape isn’t on the victim. The responsibility for the crime of rape is on the rapist.
It might be helpful to think about rape in relation to other crimes. Let’s take the example of drunk driving. There was a point in time where our culture didn’t believe that driving while intoxicated was a big deal. Drunk drivers were not punished in proportion to the seriousness of their crimes.
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Jeff Bleich and Peter C. Harvey, both fathers and lawyers, recalled that, “Until the 1980s, it was common for a court to give drunk drivers a light sentence—because it was normal to drink, because people’s judgment is impaired when they drink, the lines of when someone was too drunk to drive were blurry, and because many drunk drivers were otherwise upstanding citizens or young people with their lives ahead of them.”
But, this isn’t the way we think about drunk driving now. If people choose to get behind a wheel and drive, we hold them responsible for that choice. Collectively, as a culture, we believe that even if you’ve been drinking heavily, it should be so ingrained in your brain that you don’t drive while drunk that you won’t do that. Even if your judgment is heavily impaired, we expect you to be capable of choosing not to drive.
In addition, if you choose to drive while drunk and you injure or kill someone, we believe that your punishment should be severe. We don’t care how nice a person you were or how talented or how bright of a future you had. We expect that your choice to commit the crime of driving while drunk demands high consequences because your choice was wrong.
We need to apply that same understanding to the crime of rape. We need to recognize when people commit the crime of rape, and teach them as a society that rape is unacceptable and there are no excuses for it—even if the crime was committed by someone we know.
Don’t minimize it. Don’t shift the responsibility for rape away from the person who chose to commit it. There were plenty of other college men at the party that night who were drinking. No one else, even in their judgment-impaired state, chose to drag an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and rape her.
Let’s stop shifting the blame for the rape away from the rapist, and let’s demand recognition that rape is a serious crime and it needs serious punishment. Let’s start recognizing who is responsible and who is at fault for sexual assault—it is the rapist. Let’s call the crime what it is. Let’s call it rape.
Stand with DSVS to help support survivors of sexual assault and help make our community a place where violence is not tolerated and perpetrators are held accountable. Follow us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/DSVSMT/ or visit our website www.dsvsmontana.org.
Beth Wiley is a violence prevention educator and communication coordinator at Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Red Lodge.