In January 2015, Brock Turner, a student at Stanford University in California, sexually assaulted a woman at a party while she was unconscious. The victim woke up hours later in a hospital, injured, dazed and confused, and was told what had happened. Last week, a judge in Palo Alto sentenced Turner to just six months in jail, of which he could potentially serve only three.
The rape occurred on the ground behind a garbage truck, in a dimly-lit area away from the party. Two cyclists passing by witnessed Turner on top of a half-naked woman who had clearly passed out. When he tried to run, they chased after him and pinned him down. Rather than admitting his guilt, however, Turner insisted on a trial, which dragged on for over a year. He was eventually convicted of three felony charges: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. The maximum sentence for these is 14 years.
In explaining his lenient ruling, Judge Aaron Persky cited the perpetrator’s age (he is now 20), his lack of a criminal record, positive character references (including his skill as a competitive swimmer) and his intoxication at the time of the crime. Turner’s father submitted a statement to the court in which he argued that prison would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”.
Twenty minutes of action. There could not be a more grotesquely euphemistic description of what was, in reality, a violent and brutal rape. But the entire narrative of Turner’s defence, in both the courtroom and the media, sought to portray him as – incredulously – a victim of the whole thing himself. In his own statement to the judge, Turner laments: “I wish I never was good at swimming [sic] or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.” As if the real tragedy of the whole affair is the media attention he has been forced so painfully to endure. His best friend, in a separate submission, urges everyone to “stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists”.
Of course, rape is, by definition, committed by rapists. This is what makes it a rape. Rape by a nonrapist is what we call “consensual sex”.
Only a truly remarkable conspiracy could have resulted in such a light sentence for what was an unambiguously despicable act. That Turner’s parents and friends, and later his judge, rallied around him despite everything is a symptom of a deeply-entrenched culture of impunity and, indeed, encouragement. Young men are taught – subtly, implicitly – that they have a right to do pretty much whatever they want. They are taught to be predators, and that women are prey. They are taught that they are entitled to sex. And then, when they cross that final boundary – when the deed is done, when the woman is left lying on the ground in the dark or in the cold light of a hospital ward – they are told that it wasn’t their fault, that it was the alcohol or the pressure or that it was just a terrible, isolated mistake. Worse still, they are told that she wanted it, that she liked it. This is the avalanche of anger and suspicion that soon crashes into the victim.
In all of this, the victim herself is too often lost, brushed aside, de-individualised. A unique feature of the Turner case is that, given the widespread public outcry at the verdict, the opposite has happened – the victim’s statement, which she made in front of the judge before sentencing, has been read over four-million times so far. Its shocking descriptions of what happened to her that night are deeply, profoundly disturbing. But I find this passage to be the most devastating:
I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.
Speaking directly to the man who violated her, in the opening sentence of her statement, she writes: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”
That, surely, is the crux of the matter. Turner was intoxicated, yes – but that can never be an excuse to commit rape. The victim was drunk herself, but she didn’t drag him outside and throw him to the ground and assault him while he lay unconscious. Dozens of other men at the party were similarly drunk, and none of them are accused of rape. Turner’s drunkenness may have removed his inhibitions, but it did not manufacture his intentions.
Indeed, Turner’s disavowal of guilt inspires more revulsion – and has inflicted more pain and trauma on the victim – than anything else. Turner has, with apparently no sense of irony, promised to raise awareness of “campus drinking and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that”. He refuses to accept his action for what it was – an assault, an anomaly, not a natural consequence of “promiscuity”. He denies his own criminal agency, seeing only a set of unfortunate circumstances.
Did Turner’s parents pay off the judge in return for a light sentence? Or is the judge himself so mired in a culture of condoning the violence of young white men that he actually believed his verdict?
Really, truly, what is the difference?
You might, though, ask a different question. Why am I writing about this? Why here, and why now?
When I was 14 years old, I became friends with a girl of about the same age during a youth camp outside Cape Town. She lived in Khayelitsha, and we were paired up as “buddies” for a weekend. On the second night, we were given a list of questions to ask each other. One of those questions was “what are you most scared of?” It was innocently designed; we were expected to share our trivial phobias, of spiders or sharks or monsters in the cupboard. But she burst into tears and said, after a while, “my uncle”.
She had, like millions of young girls across South Africa, been raped repeatedly by one of her closest family members. Approximately 150 cases of rape are reported every day in South Africa, with a conviction rate of four to eight percent. Equally shocking is the prevalence of domestic violence within relationships: worldwide, nearly a third of women are victims of intimate partner violence, and estimates in South Africa go up to 55% (including pregnant women). In short, we are faced with an epidemic of violence in this country – a surreptitious, insidious, constant violence that threatens every woman, every day. As in the US, this phenomenon is particularly common on university campuses – the “Rhodes Reference List” was a reaction to an astonishingly high incidence of sexual assault, most of which goes unreported or unpunished.
The reasons for this are too many to list or count. Our law is anachronistic and counterintuitive – in terms of a precedent set in S v Chretien, a 1981 case in the Appellate Division, it effectively allows for intoxication as an absolute legal defence. It also considers the absence of an explicit refusal to be sufficient grounds for sexual consent, an approach which is dissonant with more progressive contemporary understandings of enthusiastic/active and ongoing consent. The prosecution must prove the absence of consent, rather than the defendant proving its presence. On top of these legal obstacles, our police service is poorly trained and equipped, often treating rape victims with callous insensitivity (or pure incompetence).
Changing these conditions is a mammoth task, and will only be achieved if doing so is considered a political issue, not just a technical one. Our high incidence of rape and gender-based violence is not a coincidence – rather, we have a government that has failed half of its population in dramatic fashion.
Above all, though, it is a psychology that needs to change. Conservative, misogynistic sexual attitudes cast women as objects and men as subjects – men have sex, but for women it merely happens to them. This manifests in small, apparently harmless ways, like the fact that vastly fewer women than men report receiving oral sex (despite most women also reporting that they enjoy it and can reach orgasm through it). Such an obvious inequality exposes the subconscious role perceptions that inform most sexual relationships; the least common form of sex is the only form in which the man is not receiving pleasure. This underlying psychology is evident in every case of sexual assault, harassment and rape in which men violate women and then shut them down or hound them out if they try to speak up about it.
South Africans should pay particular attention to the outcry that the Stanford case has unleashed across the Atlantic. Brock Turner might be 16,000km away, but the nightmare of rape most certainly isn’t. DM
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