Brock Turner: Rape Culture and the Legal System

by Cecilia Winterfox

Following the case of the Stanford sexual assault by Brock "Swim Champ" Turner I recommend reading the letter written by the victim, the Guardian piece reporting on the appalling reasoning by Judge Persky, Alex McKinnon's article on the perpetrator's father's letter, and Clementine's Ford's article on rape culture. I offer here some of my own reflections on rape culture and the legal system - particularly how rapists set themselves up as deserving of pity and lenience, cultivating the "brave hero overcoming adversity" mythology so perfectly satirised by the Onion (highly recommended viewing) and increasingly, as being in a position to be platformed and educate others with their cautionary tale. 

Brock "Swim Champ" Turner violently assaulted a 23 year old unconscious woman behind a dumpster at Stanford University. He was convicted in March 2016 by jury trial, and sentenced to only 6 months prison by the Judge. Turner has said he is in the process of establishing a program for high school and college students to “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that." His father, in his letter to the court, eagerly proclaimed his son, prior to and indeed in place of any formal punishment, ready and equipped to "contribute to society" by taking a leading educational role on "drinking and sexual promiscuity" and the "unfortunate results" (but interestingly not Mens Violence Against Women, which is the crime of which he is convicted and which apparently neither he nor his son accept). A hangover is an unfortunate result of drinking. Committing a violent crime is not.

It immediately struck me that I've seen this tactic before: Man commits violent act, ostensibly learns from his mistake and immediately sets himself up (or is set up by his lawyer/PR team) as a prevention expert who should be given a platform to speak and educate others with his cautionary tale. Indeed we are asked to consider him as a beacon, bravely offering up his sad story in a bid to stop others from befalling the same misfortune (it would be interesting to see the stats on how many actually go on to undertake such measures and with what longevity).

Sports heroes and celebrities convicted of sexual crimes read scripted apologies peppered with stats they've apparently just learned about violence/alcohol and how they were "shocked and disappointed" by their own actions and letting down their fans.

Rapper Chris Brown, during the furore over him coming to Australia because of his violent crimes against Rhianna quipped that he would be happy to come to Australia to "raise awareness" about domestic violence and said he should be an example of how to not let mistakes "define you" (Linking to the Onion video again - seriously, watch it). 

Chris Brown 1
Chris Brown 2

It strikes me that these men become almost more venerated, the empathy and forgiveness bestowing a mythology-like aura of the fallen hero transformed. How arrogant of this young man, sentenced to only 6 months for his violent crime because of his "bright future", to propose a speaking tour on "drinking and promiscuity". His weasel words show remorse only for himself.

Abusers should not be platformed and heard. They are not brave. It is appalling that Brock "Swim Champ" Turner, like the Steubenville rapists, is seen as a victim of circumstance, the court and the community so keen to buy into his misty eyed tale of hardship.

The trend towards this is absolutely symptomatic of rape culture. We see it in judicial reasoning, criminal defense and the media surrounding cases of sexual violence all the time: where the role of victim and perpetrator is reversed and the culpability of the perpetrator is downplayed because of perceived traits/behaviours of the victim - even when the victim is underage. Several cases come to mind: the adult teacher who raped his 14yo student who later killed herself. The judge, giving him only 30 days prison, factored in his failing marriage (no doubt "he was getting no sex at home" played into this, especially given how recently the law upheld a man's right to sex within marriage) and described the victim as having "manipulated" the perpetrator by preying on his emotional weakness. Note how the language of victimhood and predator is reversed.

The 11yo girl raped by 20 men who defense attorneys described as being "spider-like", entrapping her mature rapist and constituting to her rape by "dressing older" and hanging around in the playground with boys. The school principal who "couldn't help himself" because the girl "led him on" by dressing older, despite his threats that if she told anyone he would have her younger sister taken away from her mother. Case. After case. After case.

These "reasons" or "mitigating factors" don't come from nowhere. They come from firmly entrenched, cultural and societal ideas about gender. Misogyny is both the cause and the result. As the victim of Brock Turner so eloquently pointed out, if we continue to regard rape as a matter of trial and error for young boys whose "feelings experience" of being caught is punishment enough, we allow the misogyny that informs and upholds rape culture to endure unchallenged. The justice system must learn from feminsm and change or it cannot deliver true justice.