Twenty minutes

What the Stanford case says about society’s attitude toward sexual violence
Photo: Allan Chen

Stanford university student Brock Turner was found guilty this month of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. He has been sentenced to six months in prison.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in Ricochet’s French edition and has been translated into English.

Just before the sentence was read, Turner’s father attempted to defend his son, arguing that his entire life should not be judged on the basis of “20 minutes of action.” He implored the court to show clemency, highlighting the fact that since these events took place, his son has devoted himself to increasing awareness among affluent college kids of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, the real evil on campus.

“Binge drinking and its unfortunate results” appeared to be the real key to explaining the actions of his son, who is also a victim in this case. In this light, the judge appeared willing to show magnanimity toward a young man of otherwise good reputation and no criminal record. His conclusion was that Turner should not spend too long a period behind bars, because this would have “a severe impact on him.”

This is a pathetically sad story: a man, thinking drunkenness might be a pretext, gains brutal access to a woman’s body. But in a bizarre turn of events, the act is taken for a mere accident. What is obviously rape becomes an unfortunate incident, in which the tragic forces of destiny have conspired to bring down two intoxicated youngsters. And so it turns out, that even when it is recognized that a crime has been committed, the judge thinks justice is better served by inflicting a lighter sentence, since it will minimize the amount of overall suffering involved.

This judge has blurred the very definition of the guilty party’s act, thereby attributing part of the responsibility to the victim, and another part to sheer bad luck

Naturally the justice system does not intend to inflict punishment just to ensure suffering on lawbreakers. Nor is the discomfort of a person found guilty of any consolation to the victim. As civilized as we like to think ourselves, we are not about to cultivate such a spirit of vengeance.

Yet this judge, in an overly indulgent mood, has blurred the very definition of the guilty party’s act, thereby attributing part of the responsibility to the victim, and another part to sheer bad luck — to the point where there is neither victim nor aggressor, nor in fact any epidemic of sexual violence on university campuses. Simply two somewhat confused individuals who collided behind a dumpster after a night of partying.

With the idea of not punishing in order to not cause suffering, we ignore the rampant misogyny that condones sexual violence. What’s more, it is indirectly affirmed that the action of rape is but a minor error in the life of a man who enjoys an otherwise respectable community standing.

What better way could we demonstrate the value accorded to women on the one hand and men on the other? We refuse to destroy the career of a man for an “action lasting 20 minutes,” while quietly forgetting that the woman involved may take a lifetime or more to repair the consequences of the same act.

For him, it’s a question of social standing, reputation, and lost titles and opportunities. Yet his redemption can be lived out in public. Ah! The perverse romanticism associated with the fallen hero, whose suffering is a public affair, and so he emerges from the ordeal somehow almost unscathed. While Turner carries out his evangelical work of “encouraging healthier drinking habits on campus,” his victim will carry on alone, locked in a world of profound personal intimacy, simply trying to recover enough strength to participate again in the outside world.

This is more or less what Turner’s victim explained in a poignant speech before the bench. Her statement, picked up by the BuzzFeed website, quickly went viral. This woman is not the only one to have recently spoken up in an attempt to bring this sort of violence, which the courts have been unable to name or sanction, into public view.

Kathryn Borel, a former CBC employee and accuser of Jian Ghomeshi, acted similarly. She renounced her right to a trial on the condition that Ghomeshi make a public apology. In a courageous declaration, she noted that she understood all too well how a trial would do her as much harm as her aggressor, and that justice would probably not result. Shouldn’t we be concerned that only a private act of this kind, an act of abnegation, is able to mitigate the inefficiency of this system?

We must acknowledge the public and political dimensions involved, so that the wounds are no longer treated in silence, isolation and shame.

Since the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported appeared in fall 2014, it has often been suggested that a rampart has been breached, that women can now speak out. Yet how do we explain that beyond the collection of personal histories, we have so much difficulty in tackling this issue more broadly in the society in which this violence has taken root? We’ve been told that referring to “rape culture” places men and women in opposition, conferring on men the role of monsters while women are merely defenceless beings, and thus serving no one. It is said that we shouldn’t start a witch hunt and try to correct abuse by means of tyranny. That’s not what you want, ladies, is it? No, that’s right, it’s not what we want.

What women are asking is not that their aggressors be punished simply to make them suffer as well. Rather, they are asking that the attitudes that produce, reproduce and distill the trivialization of sexual violence in our society be named and destroyed. They are asking that such violence be no longer an invisible burden to be borne privately or reduced to “unfortunate incidents.” We must acknowledge the public and political dimensions involved, so that the wounds are no longer treated in silence, isolation and shame.

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