Protestors pose for a Slutwalk in Chicago. Photo Credit: Getty
“Please don’t do that to me—betray me and then tell me it’s a gift.”—Kathryn Hahn/Rabbi Raquel, Transparent
Saturday afternoon my three sons were in the city with their Dad, and I took advantage of the quiet by following up on some stories that had been catching my eye. I want to call it a mistake now—the decision to read a New York Times piece about how 64 people were shot in Chicago over Memorial Day Weekend, followed up with the letter that has now gone viral, written by the woman who survived being raped by Brock Turner. She has survived, and over the course of one searing, unflinching letter, achieved so much more. It was a mistake because I like to relax when my boys are out of the house. Go to my happy place. Amazon Prime and chill, most recently with The Americans. But, for a moment, it seemed I had to trade in bearing witness to the unfolding of one cold war for another. If there was ever any doubt in my mind, this case against the Stanford rapist has made it abundantly clear that women remain under attack in America. From the father’s raising their sons to be rapists, to the judges concerned with the “severe impact” prison time would have on rapists, to the women who believe that it’s only rape if a woman is kidnapped and raped while walking alone (and sober) to her car—we women who would rather not be raped are at war with a country that prefers we would.
Oh, but that’s so dramatic, isn’t it? America would rather its women be raped? Preposterous, I know.
The judge, Aaron Persky, cited Turner’s age and lack of criminal history as factors in his decision, saying, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him … I think he will not be a danger to others.”
Once again, I find myself reaching for that powerful Jesse Williams quote: “Exactly what kind of violence don’t you [America] like?”
Indeed, what kind of danger is Judge Aaron Persky concerned with? When he says that the man—who raped an unconscious woman, tried to run after he was caught in the act and never admitted to or apologized for the crime itself—will not be a danger to others, he means will not be a danger to other men. When he says that prison would have a severe impact on the rapist, he is saying that the suffering and severe impact on the woman he raped—and the others he might potentially rape—mustn’t come first.
“We’ll let Brock fill it in,” is what an officer told the victim, because she could not remember everything that happened. In other words, we’ll put his narrative first, we’ll consider his emotional state first—because that is how you wage a war against women. You tell them they must report their rapes because the justice system will reward them. You tell them they must stand trial, because a jury will convict those who committed crimes against them. And indeed, the survivor was given such a reward—and a rare one at that. The man who raped her was convicted and found guilty of three counts of sexual assault. She won—we won. This case-among so many cases where rapists were either not tried, or not convicted, is “progress.”
And this is the problem with “progress,” during an ongoing war. Women are continuously betrayed by the justice system, particularly one where white, male privilege reigns supreme. Betrayed, and then told it’s a gift. Is this really the best we can do, in the way of progress? A woman, seeing “justice” in the form of a conviction, but then being denied justice in the form of the sentencing?
Judge Persky’s attack against the survivor, via his decision to sentence Turner to a mere six months in county jail, incited outrage among American women who do not want to be raped and men who don’t want them to be raped. And the survivor’s letter outlined in perfect detail, the failures on the part of the judge, the probation officer, the police and the rapist himself—because amongst them all there, still, seemed to be a reluctance to acknowledge that a violent crime had occurred and, therefore, a violent criminal was in their midst.
And can you blame Turner? Turner, who insisted that he’d take his time post-county jail release to tour schools across this America—his America—and speak out against the dangers of drinking and… sexual promiscuity? Yes, we women who don’t wish to be raped would like to blame him, but we also know that Turner is like all of us—a product of his environment. And if we had any doubts about his environment, and how keen that environment was on a continued war on women, such doubts were alleviated upon meeting his father.
These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. [Brock’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action…
Brock Turner is a rapist whose father believes that the definition of rape is “20 minutes of action.” How can a rapist even be aware that he is raping, when the people and the culture that wrought him insist that he is not? Like Bill Cosby, his crime—just one of many in America’s war on women—has been utterly normalized. Drinking, drugs and sex go hand-in-hand, and sometimes things get a little out of control—that’s not rape, that’s life. And it’s true—that is life, in our America.
I wish that the only people who supported Turner and who helped create this culture around him were men. But of course, rape culture raises us all, and there are countless women reading about this story now and siding with Turner, they only know what they’ve been taught and because patriarchy is a hell of a drug. One such woman is Leslie Rasmussen, who believes that it’s impossible for her friend to be a rapist, because of the manner in which he raped—a manner “completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot.”
This is the culture that wrought Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Daniel Holtzclaw. And no, we have not seen justice in a single case. Justice is not Holtzclaw being sentenced to 263 years in prison, though that did feel good to me—an outsider, an American woman who has not been raped yet. Justice—shocking though it may seem—is the absence of rape. In the case of Holtzclaw, a bit of justice might have been those first few (of 13 total) victims, being believed sooner rather than later, as the rapes accumulated. 263 years is not a gift because it really signifies a betrayal—a culture that taught Holtzclaw he could rape. His tears at his sentencing were real, as he suffered a true shock—that he would be that rare case where rape was treated like a criminal act.
Like so many others who took in every word of the survivor’s powerful letter, I am angry because I know she did not receive justice. And I know this, not just because of the slap on the wrist sentencing, but because of what she had to endure to even bring such a measly, offensive slap into being. The line of questioning Buzzfeed used as the main photo for her letter—black words against a red background—when those questions are no longer asked of rape victims (Do you party at frats? Would you ever cheat on your boyfriend? Were you wearing your cardigan?), we might call that progress. Because, the accusatory What Were You Wearing? question is as much the definition of rape culture as Brock Turner, as Judge Persky, as Dan Turner. It’s as much a part of the narrative of assault as any of the other horrors these women endure.
As long as that question is still “standard,” then rape, consistently unpunished, in America’s war on women will continue to define the culture (and such a culture will continue to reap what it sows).
I wish I hadn’t read that article, especially after reading the Chicago piece. I don’t want to feel like America is truly, vehemently unconcerned with black lives and women’s lives. Such a feeling could break me, in so many ways. But, while we were betrayed by a justice system wrought in part, (like Turner), by rape culture, and while Chicago was betrayed by a class system wrought, in part, by a racism that created hoods where gang life is often the only step up, we were also offered up gifts with which to fight our war.
Lighthouses and bicycles.
Most importantly, thank you to the two men who saved me, who I have yet to meet. I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another. To have known all of these people, to have felt their protection and love, is something I will never forget.
And finally, 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. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save? they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.
The least we can do—we women who do not wish to be raped or see others raped, we who would, rather, topple the patriarchy and dismantle a rape culture, and win this civil war (one which has echoes the world over) — is to stand. To never stop fighting—be it in the form of a letter like this rape survivor’s, a light that stands in its own truth, or something akin to those bicyclists, or those three gals who stopped a rape. The least we can do is stand alongside the women carrying that weight), those #RapedAtSpelman, and every other American campus where men—not alcohol, not short dresses, not drugs and not sluts—continue to rape.
And even then, we cannot be satisfied. Again, I say: justice is the absence of rape. Until then, we soldier on.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.