By now everyone has read the victim impact statement published on Buzzfeed and outrage about Brock Turner is running high. If you haven’t, go do that now. It’s one of the most powerful things you’ll ever read.
I’ve seen lots of stuff in various commentaries calling Turner’s lack of acknowledgement of responsibility “childish”.
It reminds me of how John Key said, in relation to the Roast Busters case, “these young guys should just grow up“.
Just no. They don’t need to grow up. It’s not childish to rape someone. Of all criminal acts, this one is particularly adult.
It’s childish to shove a whole bar of chocolate into your mouth at once. It’s childish to chase a pigeon. It’s childish to push a button at a pedestrian crossing ten times.
It’s not childish to do unspeakably cruel and degrading things to another person and then refuse to acknowledge the harm.
Calling the attitude of unrepentant rapists “childish” is just one more way to minimise the seriousness of rape. Rape isn’t like an impetuous tantrum. It’s not understandable as a human tendency we call all relate to and let slide now and again.
Except, in the mind of the sentencing judge, that is exactly what this was.
I look at my cheeky little boy and he doesn’t seem like a rapist waiting to happen any more than he seems like a murderer waiting to happen. Some people say we need to do more to prevent boys from growing into rapists. I’m not so sure. I think it’s much worse than that. We’re not failing to prevent something natural: the idea that rape is an innate tendency of men is part of rape culture. The idea that it’s normal for men to prioritise their desire for sex without regard to the feelings of their sexual partners is part of rape culture. These are things that we teach boys and men in a thousand implicit ways.
I read something recently on a parenting website about postpartum sex and it was hideously problematic. I don’t even need to quote cause I’m sure you can imagine exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Or just google literally any article about postpartum sex on any parenting site and you’ll see the problems again and again and again, the centring of male desire, the minimisation of women’s experiences. Men are taught to see their sexual desire as a need, like food or water or warmth. Women are taught to facilitate and enable this myth. Rape culture, everywhere, a thousand implicit ways.
Here’s another example: think of that movie trope where a girl gets drunk and the leading man proves he’s a nice guy worthy of her affection by taking her home and not having sex with her. It’s pretty common, you even see it in teen romances. It was in 10 Things I Hate About You. It was a key plot point in The 40 Year Old Virgin. The audience knows what it’s intended communicate, because a standard guy, a normal guy, is a bit of a skeeze bag and would have had sex with her when he had the chance. Most guys are just like that! All the movies say so! Rape culture. As soon as you think about that trope for a little while it starts to seem really, really, really fucking creepy. But it’s there, it’s a pervasive message, and when a guy rapes a drunk woman, he can tell himself that he was just doing something most guys do – unless they’re like, exceptionally nice or are in love with that particular girl or something.
In a culture that turns a blind eye to rape, the people close to a rapist might find a way to excuse and minimise his actions.
Here’s something else that’s part of rape culture: baying for blood in a particular case.
Rape results from an environment that excuses rape; and in our culture this sits alongside a very punitive approach to criminal offending. So it’s tempting to think that the alternative to excusing a rapist is to lock him up and throw away the key, to punish him every day forever, but actually, that’s part of the problem too. This rapist is the product of an environment that told him what he did isn’t real rape, isn’t really that wrong, is just a misjudgement. He’s a young person whose been exposed to toxic messages about what it means to be a man, and mixed messages about rape. Rape is the worst thing ever! Rapists are monsters! (but forcing objects into the vagina of an unconscious person is a drunken mistake). This doesn’t excuse his actions: nothing can. It does help explain them. People can do awful awful things when they grow up in a culture that tells them those things are not so bad. But people can also learn to accept that while they can’t change their past actions, they can own up to them, they can go forward in a different direction, they can dedicate themselves to making amends as fully as they can while also honestly recognising that this work will never be done. The criminal justice system should be set up to help offenders realise this.
A six month sentence is an insult to the victim and makes light of the offending, but it also means that in six months, this young man is going back to the family and friends who wrote support letters that demonstrate an unwillingness to hold him to account. They found it easier to excuse his actions rather than to face them squarely and encourage him to plead guilty. Even after he was convicted, they minimised the wrongdoing. And that’s rape culture, for sure, but it’s also exacerbated by the punitive approach we have towards crime. Getting your head around the idea that your loved one did something terrible is seemingly too much to comprehend in a society that routinely calls criminals “inhuman”.
The victim’s statement in the Turner case said that what she truly wanted was for him to get it, “to understand and admit to his wrongdoing”. The whole point of her statement is to try and make him appreciate the harm he caused her. (Really, if you haven’t read it yet, you must, go read it). She sees the offender as a person who did something terrible, but a person for whom she continues to hold out hope, a person who can choose to take ownership of his actions. That is the most courageous part of her statement, and it is the bit that most profoundly challenges the culture that allows rape to happen. She refuses to let him off the hook by categorising him as a monster or and animal, and this means the rest of us can’t take that escape either.
(Go read it.)