June 9, 2016
By Rianna Lee

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Brock Turner with his family after his sentencing. Photo credit: Associated Press

One night in January 2015, two lives were changed forever. It was on this night that a former Stanford University swimmer, Brock Turner, sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after drinking too much at a party. Two men passing by on bicycles caught the man in the act and stopped the assault from continuing, but the damage had already been done.

A lengthy criminal investigation and trial ensued, and in March 2016, the man was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges, which carried a maximum of 14 years in prison. When we remember that only 68% of sexual assaults get reported, and a measly 2% of attackers ever spend a day in prison, this sentence is monumental. Justice was finally being served to not only the victim of the attack itself, but also the victims of other attacks who were silenced, ignored, or afraid to come forward about their assault.

That is – until the judge let the attacker off with a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of only 6 months, because jail time “would have a severe impact on him.” Okay… but what about the severe impact that his actions had, and will forever continue to have, on the victim? Does her pain, trauma, and suffering through not only the act of sexual assault, but reliving and retelling the nightmare over and over for a year, mean absolutely nothing? In the eyes of our justice system, it doesn’t.

Every 107 seconds, another American becomes a victim of sexual assault, but many victims never report it to the police. One huge reason for this is that they are afraid their attacker will hurt them again if police get involved. Shame and guilt are also huge factors. Many victims assume they are at fault for some reason or another, especially if there was alcohol involved. In the Stanford case, the victim was unconscious and definitely too intoxicated to give consent. The definition of rape is non-consensual sexual intercourse, so the victim is practically guaranteed a win, right? Wrong. Because the woman was so drunk she could not remember much of what happened, the attacker got to write the script for the night it happened. And boy, did he write a convincing script. He even changed the story a few times throughout the trial, and the victim could not do anything about it because her account of the night was invalid due to her level of intoxication.

Another factor is the mental and emotional stress that comes with pressing charges and going through with a trial. I can’t think of a single person who would want to relive their worst nightmare over and over, while strange people in a court room grill them about their personal life, try to poke holes in their story, and blame the attack on them. Even if the case does go to trial, oftentimes there aren’t enough witnesses or evidence to convict the attacker, and another rapist walks free. Imagine reliving your attack for months, and then when all is said and done, all of that emotional trauma was for naught. Many victims just don’t want to go through the trouble of reporting, because in most cases, the system is rigged against them.

This is the sad reality for so many sexual assault victims, and it’s because rape culture is such a huge problem in American society. We blame victims for wearing revealing clothing, being too flirty, drinking too much, etc. when we should be blaming the attacker for forcing themselves onto a person who does not give consent. We sympathize with young assaulters with promising futures and their whole lives ahead of them, instead of sympathizing with the victim of an attack they never asked for and thought would never happen to them. We perpetuate this idea that boys become men when they’ve had sex with a lot of women, and that women are less valuable when they’ve had sex with a lot of men. When women come forward about sexual assault, they are dismissed as sluts, or are seeking attention. These kinds of cultural stigmas are exactly what leads people – particularly men, although any gender can commit or be a victim of sexual assault – to sexually assault others, and allows us to turn a blind eye to the victim because she was too drunk and wearing a short skirt.

It’s no secret that the American judicial system does not adequately serve justice when it comes to sexual assault cases. Any type of sexual relation where no consent is given is ALWAYS rape. It’s still rape when the attacker is a promising, talented college student. It’s still rape when the attacker is a famous, successful music producer. It’s still rape when either party is intoxicated. These actions have consequences and need to be recognized in full. In the Stanford victim’s powerful statement following the conviction and sentencing of her attacker, she said, “…as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape… 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.” We must learn and grow as a society from the many sexual assault cases where our justice system has failed, and find a way to punish, yet rehabilitate offenders and serve justice to all victims of sexual assault.

Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights. In her spare time, you can catch her eating at Chipotle with her friends or playing with her two guinea pigs, Thor and Loki.