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.