Kelly Phillips-Henry, et. al: Legal, social changes needed in dealing with sex assault

Recent sentencing decisions for sexual assault convictions involving Austin Wilkerson, Brock Turner and David Becker have evoked impassioned responses for the cause of social justice locally, regionally and nationally.

Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), a longstanding program of Mental Health Partners in Boulder and Broomfield counties, has received dozens of calls and emails in recent weeks from people in our community, many of whom are survivors themselves, or the family members of survivors of sexual crimes. The perspectives and concerns they express remind us that many lives are impacted when sentencing decisions do not reflect our expectations of offender accountability.

The purpose of a legal sentence for sexual assault, according to Colorado statute, is “to promote acceptance of responsibility and accountability by offenders and to provide restoration and healing for victims and the community.” Furthermore, there is no universal approach for how best to ensure that offenders receive just punishment with support for rehabilitation.

In the spirit of social justice and healing, we call for change within the legal system so the existing laws and sentencing practices for sexual violence in Colorado reflect appropriate and consistent accountability for sexual offenders.

We call for change within our societal attitudes and responses to rape and sexual assault, so that sexual violence is not condoned or minimized.

We rededicate our efforts to increase awareness of sexual violence and its destructive impact on lives. We seek to deliver programs of education and prevention, especially in our schools and universities, to reduce the potential for such acts to be committed.

We call for change within our communities so survivors of sexual crimes receive the utmost support for as long as needed to heal from the effects of the crime that was perpetrated upon them.

We can do no less to ensure justice for survivors and our communities.

Kelly Phillips-Henry
CEO, Mental Health Partners

Janine D’Anniballe
Director, Moving to End Sexual Assault

Anne Tapp
Executive Director, Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence

Jeff Zayach
Executive Director, Boulder County Public Health

Channeling Anger Into Action After Stanford Case

Outrage and disgust filled the hearts of millions in the past few weeks after convicted rapist Brock Turner was sentenced to a measly six months in jail as punishment for three felonies of sexual assault. People were incredulous: How could Turner get off so easy? Surely our justice system delivers harsher sentences for rapists?

The truth is, lenient sentences are not uncommon in sexual assault cases. According to an analysis of Justice Department data by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 3 percent of perpetrators ever spend a single day in prison.

RAINN breaks down this statistic as follows: Out of every 100 rapes that occur, only 46 get reported to the police. Out of those 46 rapes that are reported to the police, RAINN finds that 12 of them lead to an arrest. Out of those 12, only 9 of them will be prosecuted. Of those 9 cases, 5 of them will receive a felony conviction. Then of those 5 convicted perpetrators, only 3 will see prison time.

That means 97 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.

How is this possible?

In addition to the privileges Turner has as a white, middle-class male, he and other perpetrators also have the privilege of living in a rape culture.

Rape culture is the term for a society in which sexual violence is common and in which attitudes, norms, and the media normalize, excuse, tolerate and even condone rape. Within rape culture, the experiences of survivors are devalued and perpetrators are supported on institutional and social levels.

In the Stanford case, Judge Aaron Persky disregarded the experience of the survivor, even though she wrote an incredibly powerful 7,000-world statement detailing the trauma and suffering she has gone through. Instead, Persky sided with the perpetrator, stating that he believed “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

This could not be a clearer reflection of rape culture: valuing the future of the perpetrator more than the experience of the survivor. And while many people have called for the removal of this judge, we know that it will take more than the removal of one judge to solve this institutional problem. When 97 percent of perpetrators walk free, the issue is clearly much larger than one single case.

And until we can change our culture to recognize the gravity of sexual assault, rapists will continue to get off with just a slap on the wrist.

The survivor in the Stanford case wrote about this in her statement:

“The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault need to be severe enough that people feel enough fear to exercise good judgment even if they are drunk, severe enough to be preventative.”

Harsher sentences are imperative if we are ever to truly end sexual assault. Since most perpetrators are repeat offenders, it is important that they not be let free to rape again.

We also need more and better prevention efforts to keep sexual assault from happening in the first place. Bystander intervention training has seen success in many communities. The two bicyclists in this case are a great example of how we can all intervene to stop sexual assault. With more trainings in being an active bystander, we can empower more people to prevent sexual assaults before they happen.

Ending Rape Culture

Judge Persky caused outrage with his sentence, but Brock Turner’s father added fuel to the fire when he wrote a statement asking the judge for leniency. Dan Turner wrote about how his son could no longer enjoy his favorite foods and should not receive time in jail.

“That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life,” he said in his statement.

Once again, the survivor is devalued and forgotten in this plea; instead, sexual assault has been diminished to “20 minutes of action” and the focus is on how the perpetrator’s life has been affected. By using the word “action” instead of “assault,” Dan Turner is also implying that this was consensual– but it was not. The survivor in this case was actually unconscious, and therefore unable to give consent.

Dan Turner’s statement illustrates rape culture on a social level, in which a person tolerates sexual assault. He even excuses sexual assault by blaming alcohol – even though the only cause of sexual assault is perpetrators.

Luckily, many people were quick to call out Dan Turner for his statement and condemn his attitude toward rape. This shows progress. And if we continue to challenge rape culture, we can create a new culture that values, believes, and supports survivors. One that doesn’t blame alcohol or survivors for rape.

But it won’t be easy. Sexual assault cases are complex and the responsibility for change does not only fall on judges and juries, but on everyone. Dismantling rape culture will take the work of all of us – especially those who are not currently part of the movement. Now is the time to engage with friends, family, neighbors and coworkers who have expressed their outrage with this case and show them how they can take action to prevent future injustices.

Keep the conversation going in your communities. Talk to youth about consent and positive relationships. Teach boys and men to respect women. Call out people who make rape jokes and blame victims. Educate others about rape myths and the reality of sexual assault. Believe and support survivors.

All of these may seem like small steps to take, but together they can create culture change and move us closer to ending sexual assault. Let us stand in solidarity with the survivor in the Stanford case and with all survivors to build a culture and justice system that doesn’t see sexual assault as an excusable, tolerable error in judgment, but as a violent crime that calls for severe sentences.

Contributed by Rebecca Jaskot, Prevention Education Specialist.

Note: This article was revised on July 1, 2016.

A Call Not For A Truce, But For A Change

“I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.”

Andrea Dworkin’s essay and call for a truce was written a few decades ago, during the tumultuous wave of feminism which would become the stereotyped “face” of man-and-sex-hating feminisms, and it is due for an overhaul. The premise is wonderful, but the context and its exclusions, need to be addressed. We at MESA are an inclusive bunch and fight all oppressions, especially the ones the anti-violence movement unwittingly reinforce.

New proposal: I want twenty-four hours during which all oppressions—ageism, sexism, anti-Trans* sentiments, cissexism, homophobia, classism, racism, heterosexism, nationalism, xenophobia, ableism, and anything I may have missed—that contribute to a sexual violence and rape culture are understood and suspended. Ideally, we would spend that twenty-four hours gaining an understanding and empathy for those oppressions that we do not personally experience, so that at the end of that twenty-four hours, we can collectively begin the process of cultural change.

The problem that Dworkin and her like had is being repeated today in the anti-violence movement: it is exclusionary, over-simplifies gendered violence and ignores the oppressive social structures that have constricted and been used to justify violence towards marginalized peoples. Sexual violence is not a simple, one-way formula. Every survivor experiences victimization, healing and empowerment in their own unique ways.

Women of Color have to navigate a world that doubly dominates them via sexism and racism, and responses to survivorship are influenced by this. Some anti-violence advocates are not trained in understanding how systems of racism affect how a survivor may be treated during a course of investigation, how they may be viewed by the public, or how racism may be an additional motivation of a sexual violence crime; after all, racial privilege is an extension of power and control and sexual violence and torture are common methods to inspire fear and reassert racial boundaries.

Trans* survivors also face transphobia at every step of the process; and not all anti-violence and rape crisis centers have made it a priority to be trained in Trans* issues, resources, or even how to respect and talk to them without turning their gender identity into a spectacle, or making the mistake of not calling them with the pronouns they prefer.

And of course, there are male survivors of sexual violence. Male survivors are also ridiculed, especially if their attacker was a woman. Prison rape is used as a punchline or as a so-called deterrent for crime (from a criminological point of view, ineffective and nonsensical) instead of an act of violence that is support by the state, particularly states who choose not to investigate and attempt to prevent rape as per the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Services for survivors who leave prison are not widely available, and this makes the transition from imprisonment back into mainstream society even more difficult. This is especially problematic for youth, particularly youth of Color who are in constant contact with harsh policing and more likely to be funneled back into incarceration, often for non-violent offenses, and increasing the likelihood of sexual violence.

These (somewhat simplified) examples show it is not just sexism we need to be concerned with in our quest to end sexual violence. There are multiple and often intersecting “isms” and societal suppressors that need to be addressed in addition to sexism. One way to accomplish this is a call not just for a truce but for a social and cultural change.

I want a twenty-four hour in which we develop an empathic sense of what it is like to be dehumanized and degraded as survivors based on several identities and oppression with which we are unfamiliar. This proposal for change is enthusiastic, but necessary.

An anti-violence movement that does not incorporate an understanding and programs for all survivors is not a movement that will end rape culture—it is a movement that will only serve to isolate and re-victimize those who have historically been left out since inception.

Inclusivity is not a novelty or an additional caveat for centers to dabble in. It is a dedication and a growing process, one that MESA is delighted to be a part of. We know to end sexual violence, inclusivity and a united front against oppressions is a necessity.

On Space, Empowerment, and Survival

It can seem silly, having a need for a personal and safe space on the internet. The internet is a vast, non-tangible or physical “place,” so how can it contribute to empowerment or survival?
The answer is simple: for those us who either fight against or have survived violence, oppression, and navigate a world where our experiences are sometimes belittled, ridiculed, and made the punchline of joke, a safe space that is conducive to empowerment and/or expression is sorely needed.

When someone survives sexual violence, it is not just their bodies that have been hurt. It is emotional, mental, social, and everything else that makes a person who they are. It can be ostracizing and dehumanizing and often we are re-victimized (sometimes unintentionally) by our family, friends, peers, members of the criminal justice systems, and sometimes activists who have their best interests at heart.

A space, even a virtual one, is essential for healing and empowerment. We all unfortunately live in a world where sexual violence is rarely and arbitrarily punished, where survivors are forced to “prove” their believability, where victim-blaming can be expected and sympathy can be given to those who have chosen to commit acts of violence. These acts have the effects of making formerly “safe” spaces and public spaces feel threatening, like we are outsiders and a right has been taken.

And it is true.

Reclaiming a space is an act of radicalism in a system and social world that attempts to silence survivors, their families and friends, while creating apologist ideals that enable or make invisible rape culture.

This space is not always guaranteed to be “Safe” but it can be guaranteed that it will be reflexive, open, honest, and ready to combat rape culture and myths that are pervasive in this world. It will not fully heal, and definitely is not a solution to sexual violence but it is a stand.

This is our space. To educate, to feel, and to express. Ideally, one day this space will no longer exist because sexual violence will be an old relic, one that is looked upon with disgust and used as an example on how to not treat people. Unfortunately this is not yet a reality.

Until we anti-violence advocates and community members are successful in this mission, we will continue to fight against oppressions, marginalization’s, and disempowerments of survivors until every person is guaranteed the basic right to live lives free from the threat of sexual violence. One step towards this future is this blog—a space we hope all survivors, their allies, and community members can enjoy and consider their own.