Brock Turner and the two stories of rape

Today I should be working, but last night I read about the sexual assault trial of Brock Allen Turner, and now I am finding it hard to think about anything else.

The first thing I saw was the headline: ‘Ex Stanford swimmer raped unconscious girl behind dumpster’

I read the father’s letter to the judge, then finally the victim’s eloquent, heartbreaking statement, that I would encourage everyone to do.

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What strikes me is the curious disconnect between what the judge, father and rapist seem to think occurred, and what actually happened. Unlike many rape cases, that rely on one person’s word against another’s, it’s not that the details of the crime are disputed: at a party, Turner digitally raped the victim behind a dumpster while she was fully unconscious, was caught attempting to rape her further and tried to run away. But the story that the three men are telling, which focuses on the criminal and the tragedy of his lost future, does not meet the victim’s: though they agree on the details, they misunderstand the meaning of the crime.

We have always had two stories. There is the first story which is of the rape the victim describes, we are familiar with the effects this tragedy can have on a person’s body, soul, humanity. We sympathise, we understand. An unconscious victim is preyed upon, that is rape. It is committed by a stranger lurking in the dark. They may be an outsider, have mental health issues, or are ‘Mexican’ (Donald Trump).

Then there is the second story which is of the American Pie university experience, or school, or the workplace, or a friend’s party. There is ‘drinking culture’.  There are lads, encouraged by everyone to see their sexual needs as a priority, who have never had to question their entitlement to women’s bodies. There is laughter and alcohol and people going a bit far. Crazy partying. There is a drunk college student, a star athlete, with good grades and lots of friends, who takes a girl he has kissed behind a dumpster even though she is so drunk she passes out. She is drunk, she can’t remember anything, we are made to question it – that, is that really rape? Isn’t it just a bit of fun?

We need to stop believing and perpetuating the idea that these two stories are somehow separate. We need to bridge the gap between these two ideas, which are inextricable from each other, and we need to judge the crime from the victim’s perspective, as every other crime is judged. This case exposes a reality that rape survivors have been telling us all along: this is not a minor indiscretion that one can simply brush under the carpet, it is a ‘lifelong sentence’. The victim’s statement in this case is not necessarily unusual in it’s description of the impact of the violation, the effect it had on her, but only in the fact that we have the chance to read it at all.

Despite hearing her account, the judge decided that Brock, because of his lost future and the ‘severe impact’ jail would have on him, should receive a lenient sentence – as Jessica Valenti puts it, this trial exposes a ‘culture that bends over backwards to humanize rapists while demonizing their victims’. The victim asks, what if her rapist was not a star athlete, would he somehow then be less culpable?

It reminds me of a Guardian article I read a while ago about drug crime – I was surprised to learn that black men stopped and searched for drugs in the UK are far less likely to have anything on them than white men, but far more likely to be charged if they do. This prejudice feeds itself – if more black men are charged we have statistically more black criminals than we would have if things were more fairly judged. This mimics my life experience: a black friend caught with a small amount of weed was charged, my white brother who was caught smoking a spliff in public was only given a warning. Later when he applied to work in America this distinction became pertinent: had he had a drug record he would not have been able to get a work visa and his life now would be very different.

It’s not as simple as saying that the police are racist, though undoubtedly some of them are. The problem is more ingrained. In culture we are fed images of criminals, and they are not typically white. Black actors tell me they are rarely offered roles that aren’t violent, and/or criminal – they get ‘gang member’ and ‘thug with knife’.  The need to accept work means that they inadvertently perpetuate the stereotype. They are ‘the face’ of crime. So when someone with an expensive education and a white face is caught committing a crime it’s seen somehow as a mistake, a misdemeanour, a strange diversion from the norm of their usual conduct. When a black man is caught it’s seen as symptomatic, natural, ongoing behaviour. Brock Turner, with his whiteness, his record of achievement, his golden boy status and the pervasive rape culture of university campuses (all over the world) had at no point to interrogate the idea that what he was doing was not only morally wrong, but criminal, and could potentially have a lasting, devastating effect on his victim. That what he was taking was so much more than what they have conceded. I wonder if a Mexican man would have been afforded the same luxury.

The victim’s statement does acknowledge the effect the trial will have on Brock’s life. While she is stoic she questions the idea that he has merely slipped up and been punished enough for this ’20 minutes of action’. The message it sends out, she claims, is that we can let perpetrators learn the lesson that rape is wrong through trial and error -how many rape victims must be discarded along the way for that lesson to be mastered?

I think of my own life, the countless times I have been touched inappropriately, been followed home, had my drink spiked, been groped on public transport, had my mood ruined by negging or harassment. The measures I’ve had to take to avoid these things happening: being alert, holding keys in my hand as I walked home, ignoring or smiling at advances because I didn’t know how a rejection would turn out, dressing down to avoid looking like I was ‘asking for’ attention, changing my route or walking ‘like a man’ to fend off confrontation. Normal experiences for anyone female anywhere in the world. And the times I’ve been drunk, too drunk to know what was happening or protect myself if anything were to.

I think of the accounts I have from friends of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, marital rape. Committed not just by strangers, but by uncles, friends, teachers, husbands and brothers. One girl I met in Thailand had been sold into a rich family as a sex slave at age 6. One girl had grown up in a cult where adults were encouraged to rape and sexually abuse children. Those are recognised as rape in the first story sense, happening to an innocent somewhere else and committed by people with another skin colour or religious beliefs. But by far the most common accounts of assault I have heard are the ones that Brock Allen Turner committed – where the violence was covered by a veil of ‘drinking culture’ and ‘promiscuity’, where the victim knew his/her rapist and couldn’t tell anyone because they felt confused by friendship, intoxication and the fear of not being believed.

Al Vernaccio in his TED talk explains why he thinks the metaphor we have for sex is wrong. We use baseball, he says, and it should be pizza. In baseball it’s all about competing, one (male) player getting to certain bases, winning over another. We need to wake up, he says, to how this metaphor detrimentally affects women, gay people, trans people. This metaphor supports rape culture, a culture that encourages young men to see women as conquests, as demonstrated in the tweet:

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We need to wake up to how this culture values men over women. The patriarchal figures in this trial (judge, father and rapist) hold the entitlement to that sexual gratification. As the victim describes, they have the voice in this scenario. They wrote a second story of the tragedy from Brock’s perspective – the clean college boy who drank too much, caused a felony and now might have his life ruined, the subtle implication being that it is the victim who is ruining it. By bringing these things into the light she is bringing up nastiness that will stay with him his whole life. If only she could just be silent.

If it weren’t for her candid and eloquent account, it is likely that many would have understood it in the same way, though Brock’s eyes – but her point is undeniable: yes, he has ruined his life. This trial will ruin his life in many ways. And that is how law works. And it should have, because that should be a consequence of taking it upon yourself to do something to another person that may conceivably ruin their life. At no point should we consider the criminal as somehow MORE valuable than the victim, which is what is happening when we say that because the rapist is ‘no longer his happy go lucky self’ or can no longer ‘enjoy steaks’ he should get a lenient sentence, or because he will no longer be able to live the life he hoped to. What you are really saying is that he is more valuable, not only than the victim, a woman, but also than other, less privileged and therefore less high flying, college students. He is white, after all, it is an indiscretion. He has great swimming times, after all. He has a good education, after all, so doesn’t he deserve to be given special treatment?

This attitude has pervaded for so long that we believe the story we are handed. Many victims don’t get the voice. In most cases we are left holding only the facts from the defence: she was flirtatious on the phone to her boyfriend so may have been horny and may have led him on. She was drunk and kissed him. She was drunk. She can’t remember what happened (implying not only that she may have consented, but also that the act wouldn’t really affect her that much). But her account gives voice to the reality. The things I remember are the little details. The beige cardigan she was wearing. The fact that she didn’t even want to go to the party. The guilt of her sister, the abrasions and dirt left inside her vagina and the pine needles in her hair. The knowledge of the best places to cry without being caught in the building she worked. The terrifying feeling of not wanting her own body, and the loss of a part of herself that she can never reclaim.

While I do think the rapist is reprehensible, not only in his crime but in his arrogant and sickening inability to recognise the extent of it or admit his guilt, I cannot find him to be the only one to blame. A culture of silencing victims and writing the second story as somehow separate from the first allows rapists to excuse their actions as something other than rape. One of his character references, Leslie Rasmussen highlights a common misconception when she says

‘This is completely different to a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she walks to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists’.

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Her argument is that rapists are ‘monsters’ and Brock is not a monster and therefore cannot be a rapist. She is wrong.

What is poignantly explained in the victim’s account is that that IS rape. That is what it is. The fact that it can be committed by a drunk ‘nice guy’ does in no way diminish the fact that this rape that happened, the ‘20 minutes of action’ that had such a devastating effect on the victim IS THE SAME RAPE that was committed by Brock, a ‘nice’, clean-cut, successful athlete.

If he had not been stopped and run away she would still have woken up or been found in the same state. She would have gone through the same questions. With her underwear ripped off and the same violence remaining inside her vagina. She would have had to decide whether to go to the hospital and or police. The result for her would have operated on a similar plain of guilt, confusion, shame and violation. He would have gone home, woken up with a hangover, remembered or not remembered the incident, potentially without needing to focus too much on it, and carried on with his life.

What strikes me about my own experience is that often when I have felt threatened, objectified or violated, the perpetrator may have had no idea that that is how he’s made me feel. At times when I have been outspoken they have sometimes reacted – to my surprise – with surprise. Something I had thought was so obvious – a big man following me on an empty street at night to question (aggressively) why I wouldn’t talk to him was completely unaware that he might be scaring me. He was drunk, he was less aware of my feelings than of his own needs and desires. We are taught: men should try, women should resist. But politely, women should also take care of the feelings of the men in case they are made to feel less manly. On many occasions I have smiled at the person who I felt threatened by in order to get away. That is a common strategy and allows one to continue with the least interruption and risk, though does nothing to stop this behaviour.

I agree that we need to change the metaphor around sex. We can’t continue to teach boys that their manhood is intertwined with conquest and possession. We need to teach boys the consequences of their actions and the limits to their entitlement. We need to stop valuing male futures over female ones. We all need to know that that IS rape. That is exactly what it is. There is no second story.