Brock Turner Is A Reminder That It's 2016 And We Still Don't Understand Consent
The Debrief: We still have so mcuh more to do to combat rape culture and support survivors of sexual assault
By now you’ve probably heard of Brock Turner. You’ve probably seen his picture. You probably know that he was really good at swimming. He’s been in the news rather a lot over the last week since he was sentenced for sexual assault.
You may also have read the passionate, powerful and goosebump-giving open letter the woman he sexually assaulted wrote to him and the court that convicted him of assaulting her while she was unconscious.
If you’ve read much about this case, you’ll know a lot about the woman Turner assaulted. You’ll know that she came round after the attack in hospital, you’ll know that she found pine needles in her hair, you’ll know that she has a younger sister and a boyfriend, you’ll know that she was found behind a dumpster by two swedes with bicycles and, above all, you’ll know how completely, totally and utterly devastated she was by what happened on January 17th 2015.
What you won’t know about her, however, is her name. You don’t know who she is, what she does for a living, where she lives or she looks like. You could walk passed her in the street and not know. She could be anyone and that's why this matters. Her anonymity serves to remind us of something that we must never forget. Rapes and sexual assaults affect many women of many ages from many backgrounds the world over. This woman, whoever she is, has bravely contributed to a conversation and said eloquently said something that, perhaps, not all of the women who have experienced rape or sexual assault would have been able to say.
Of course it is the excruciating detail of her personal and specific account of sexual assault which pricks all of our consciences, which promoted so many of us to share what she wrote and which has moved so many people. And yet it is because we don't know her identity that this detail has such an impact. She could be anyone - for every detail she has shared with us, for every pine needle she pulled from her tangled hair, for every scratch she discovered on her body and for every sleepless night she has suffered since her attack there are thousands and thousands of women out there who have their own, equally horrific and devastatingly detailed experiences, which they potentially relive on their own every night before they go to bed and every morning when they get up. To them she says - 'you are not alone'.
This woman, whoever she is and wherever she is while she tries to rebuild her life ended her open letter by saying this:
'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 every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you.'
The world has responded to her by effectively saying, simply: ‘No. Whoever you are, thank you. We're with you.’
It’s baffling but it seems that in 2016 there is still confusion about consent. Turner himself still, despite being put on trial and convicted, doesn’t quite seem to understand what he did. In a letter he submitted to the court he gave excuses. He cited peer pressure and alcohol as mitigating factors, he blamed drinking culture, partying culture and the culture of promiscuity at college for what he did. He even went as far as to suggest that the woman he assaulted was somehow culpable; when he asked her if she was enjoying what he ‘was doing’ she gave a ‘positive response’, he says.
The attitudes of Turner and his father are symptomatic of something more widespread. We have a deeply rooted and dangerous cultural problem. Sexual assault is a global issue and, sadly, it’s an endemic one. The majority of people affected by it are women. As RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) point out, in America someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. And yet, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators end up serving jail time for their actions. In the UK specifically, according to Rape Crisis, roughly 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. They say this works out at roughly 11 rapes every hour. 1 in 5 women between the ages of 16 and 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Globally, the UN estimates that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, both at the hands of strangers and people known well to them.
These numbers speak for themselves don't they?. And yet, women who are affected so seldom feel supported enough to speak out. Rapes and sexual assaults are still woefully underreported and underprosecuted while survivors are undersupported.
Today, the cast of GIRLS - Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet, have released a video as a show of support and dedicated it ‘the brave survivor in the Stanford case’ - a woman none of us know but to whom all of us owe something.
In the face of Brock Turner’s attempts at defending himself, his father’s attempts at excusing him and the judge’s woefully short sentencing of him their video, which is effectively a public service announcement, is a vital call to arms for us all.
Since this particular trial ended last week Turner’s father has publically said in a letter to the Judge that he doesn’t think his son should go to prison at all for his crime which he has pitifully dismissed as '20 minutes of action.’ Unfortunately, this only serves to underscore how insidious rape culture is and how misunderstood the fundamental nature and importance of consent is. In a world where rape culture is still upheld - perpetuated by comments like Turner’s father's and reinforced by short sentences such as the one he has received (6 months’ jail time when he faced a potential sentence of 14 years), Turner's victim's statement, harrowing as it is, is a brave, bold and sadly necessary account of the absolutely torturous after-effects of sexual assault on victims.
What the GIRLS stars’ video points out that this woman’s letter has ‘changed the conversation’ about rape and sexual assault. She has openly and unflinchingly spoken about the difficult details of her case and reminded us all that sadly, today, the survivors of sexual assault and rape are all too often shamed, ridiculed, disbelieved and disregarded.
This will only change if we all keep the conversation alive. If we strive to support those we know who have experienced sexual violence, abuse, assault or rape. If we do the best we can to let them know that they are not alone, that they will always be believed and that there is no shame whatsoever in what has happened to them.
Where do we go from here? It’s not simply enough to highlight that we have a problem. We must not allow a culture to perpetuate where the consensus is that men, like Turner, 'learn through trial and error that rape is wrong' as the woman he assalted puts it herself. We don't apply such an attitude to any other crime - you don't learn not to steal, embezzle, murder or commit arson. Why is rape any different?
We need to take action – whether that’s pushing for better sex and relationships education in our schools publically, having a conversation about consent privately or supporting a survivor personally. We need to keep this conversation alive until it’s one we no longer need to have. We aren’t there yet.
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