How society looks out for the wrong people in rape cases
By now, many people know the story. In January of 2015, Brock Turner — a white, Stanford athlete — raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was only stopped when two bikers witnessed the attack, chased Turner and tackled him to the ground, restraining him until police arrived.The prosecution in the case argued for Turner to be given six years in prison. Aaron Persky, the judge in the case — and a former Stanford athlete — instead gave Turner six months in jail. In the sentencing transcript published by The Guardian, Persky explained his reasoning for the lenient punishment was that a prison sentence would have “a severe impact” on Turner. In the end, Turner only ended up serving three months in jail, getting out early for “good behavior.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
People might answer that question with any number of responses blaming the judge, the justice system, white privilege, or Turner himself. But one of the biggest issues is that this kind of “punishment” isn’t isolated to Turner. So much attention has been brought to the Turner case (and rightfully so) that it is difficult for people to understand that there are countless Judge Perskys out there giving lenient sentences to rapists because they care more about the impact punishment will have on the attacker than justice for the victim.
Any person with an Internet connection can quickly find examples similar to the Turner case. David Becker, charged with two counts of rape in 2016, was given two years probation. If he doesn’t violate probation, his charges will be dropped and he won’t have to register as a sex offender. Austin Wilkerson, who was convicted of a 2014 rape, was sentenced to two years of night jail while he attends school. Ma’Lik Richmond, one of the assailants from the Steubenville rape case in 2012, was out of jail and back to playing football for his high school team within a year.
These are just a few of the cases that have received national publicity. Furthermore, most of these are assailants who were not only brought to trial, but successfully convicted. The majority of sexual assault cases don’t even get that far. According to Department of Justice statistics from 2010 through 2014, only about 34.4 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police and even reporting the assault doesn’t mean the assailant will be convicted.
Tiffani Ziemann, Title IX coordinator at Ithaca College, said that in her experience, only a very small amount of sexual assault cases go to court. “People think it’s hard to prove, and there’s so much responsibility on the victim to prove it,” she said. “Survivors give up because the process is so difficult. The accused will plea down [to a lesser charge]. There’s a culture of ‘We don’t want to ruin someone’s life over this.’”
But the idea of “not wanting to ruin someone’s life” doesn’t take into account the life that has already been severely and permanently changed: the victim’s. In the case of Turner, after hearing about his sentence, the unnamed survivor read a powerful letter discussing the “severe impact” the assault has already had on her life. This letter caught national attention and spurred responses from thousands of people.
One such person was Yana Mazurkevich, a junior at Ithaca College and photographer of two photo sets about rape and rape culture. The second series, “It Happens,” was purposely released the same day Turner went free after his three-month jail sentence. The intense images depict many settings of sexual assault, leading up to the last photo of a woman lying behind a dumpster — a very obvious reference to the Turner case. Mazurkevich said, “When I found out that Brock Turner was being released, I decided to shoot the last image, which is “It Happens.””
However, aside from the last image, the second series is not centered solely on Turner. Mazurkevich wanted to draw attention to the issue of sexual assault in its entirety, and how people view and handle it.
“We’re not looking at sexual assault as a big [problem]. I feel like people are dismissing it,” she said.
Why aren’t people taking sexual assault seriously?
So why is society dismissing something experienced by so many people? Well, for judges and juries to convict and sentence rapists properly, for prosecutors to put forth a solid case and for survivors to even come forward and persevere through an investigation and trial, a certain attitude about sexual assault has to exist. Currently, there’s a trend to blame the victim for the attack. For example, the survivor in the Turner case was asked by investigators, “What were you wearing?” and “How much did you drink?” This not only downplays the significance of the assault, but also completely shifts the blame away from the perpetrator.
Much like rape itself, victim blaming is not uncommon. A survey published in 2015 by the UK’s Telegraph News reported that more than 25 percent of the overall public thought rape victims were “at least partly” responsible for being assaulted if they were drunk, and 31 percent thought so if the victim had been taking drugs. And there are more judges than just Persky not taking rape seriously. In 2014, Canadian judge Robin Camp asked a rape victim in court “why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”
And as seen in the Turner case, people often raise concerns over how punishment will hurt the assailant. That leads to doubts over whether consequences are really necessary. After Judge Thomas Rooke gave David Becker probation for rape charges, Becker’s attorney said that the “goal” of his sentence was to not interfere with Becker’s education and “college experience.” The standard thought process is that the rapist was young. Maybe they were drunk. They learned their lesson. Is it worth “ruining their life” over this? Many people don’t seem to understand that rape and sexual assault have a severe impact on the victims’ lives. Shouldn’t the punishment of rapists reflect that?
What comes next?
There was clear outrage over the outcome of the Turner case. Over a million people signed a Change.org petition to remove Judge Persky from his position on the bench. Vice President Joe Biden wrote a response to the survivor of the attack. Jeff Rosen, the district attorney in the case, sponsored legislation to close the loophole in California law that allowed the judge leeway on Turner’s sentence. California state law requires a mandatory three to eight year prison sentence for rape with force, but this somehow does not apply when the victim is unconscious. So there is a push for change, but what has to be done?
Ziemann said an important step is just how we as a society talk about sex and consent.
“I think that’s the core,” she said. “There’s so much onus on the victim or survivor to have done something to stop the assault … the shift needs to be towards [affirmative consent.]”
Affirmative consent is a twist on the “no means no” movement, the idea being that the absence of a “no” isn’t good enough; there has to be an affirmative and non-coerced “yes” for true consent. At the moment, affirmative consent is the mandated standard in very few states.
Ziemann said a change in the attitude about consent will “shift how we feel when [consent] is violated.”
That could lead to more victims willing to report their assaults, because the blame will be on the accused and not the accuser.
The Turner case was not unique, but it could be the case that garners enough outrage to unite people against letting another rapist slip through the cracks. Or as District Attorney Rosen put it in an interview with Mercury News, the Stanford survivor deserves more than sympathy. “Let’s give her a legacy that will send the next Brock Turner to prison.”
Morgan Diegel is a freshman writing major with a minor in calling out systemic societal issues. They can be reached out .