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Brock Turner and Sexual Assault in the Media

Oct. 5, 2016
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When I first saw the Brock Turner story, I thought it couldn't get any worse than it already was. Already it was the stuff of nightmares, all the clichés we're warned about, exacerbated by the reminder that this happens around the U.S. every single day, in different towns, to too many people. 

And then we read the victim's brave, gut-wrenching message, and I felt a little bit of hope, because here we had proof that you can keep your voice after someone tries to take it from you. She communicated her experience so clearly, so chillingly, that even a casual reader would be sucked in and forced to empathize with her traumatic experience. You read something like that and it stays with you forever. 

But then we read Dan A. Turner’s letter with that appalling dismissal of "20 minutes of action." We read the character letter written by Brock’s childhood friend Leslie, who claims he’s not a rapist because rape is when “a woman get[s] kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot.” To her, rape is something only a stranger can inflict; when someone she knows instigates it, it’s a “misunderstanding.”

Leslie says “alcohol increases emotions and feelings,” and I think she means to say what we all know, that alcohol makes you less inhibited. Telling girls not to drink because we don’t know how boys will act is like teaching abstinence instead of birth control. It’s hopelessly idealistic and ultimately ineffective. 

We're taught to think of rapists as guys in masks lurking in alleys and parking lots, but that's so rarely the case. We might be more likely to be raped by guys who look great on paper. We're definitely more likely to be raped by someone whom we know just enough to feel safe with, because we think that our familiarity with them provides some semblance of security. 

The Turner case has gotten so much attention because it’s at the intersection of so many different issues whose collateral damage makes headlines every day: rape culture, athlete culture, white privilege. The core of all of them is entitlement. When you put anyone on a pedestal – whether it be one of talent, ability, skin color, or gender - you remove them from the burden of responsibility for their actions. When you lift them above reproach, you make them less human, and in doing so, make it easier to dehumanize their victims. 

Brock Turner made it very clear that his victim was interchangeable, disposable. She meant nothing to him as a person. But she means so much to present and future survivors, because her ability to reconcile her traumatic experience into something so eloquent might be the swaying factor that finally instigates much-needed change. In June, eighteen members of the House of Representatives took turns reading her letter aloud, entering it into the congressional record forever. Maybe, finally, this sort of exposure will actually make a dent in the public perception of what a rapist is and what it means to be raped.

On September 2, Brock Turner was released from prison after serving half of his six-month sentence, perpetuating a cycle of wholly inadequate punishment for men whose connections or abilities make them sickeningly untouchable. I’m not sure what’s worse, the men who then feel free to emulate the examples of Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Brown, or the legions of fans who still support them. 

In this supposed age of equality, the media’s first response to rape allegations rarely seems to be to seek the truth, but rather to dig up any dirt on the victim and try to prove she’s lying. The rapists are considered innocent until proven guilty, but the victims are considered attention-seeking gold-diggers until proven innocent. 

We have to stop bending the rules for people who dazzle us. We have to stop muting the voices of Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Samantha Geimer, Dylan Farrow, Desiree Washington, and the millions of victims who have been silenced by the fear that no one would believe them. We have to start raising sons who understand that their proclivity for swimming, basketball, filmmaking, or politics does not exempt them from being a decent human being. And until we do this, there will be a different victim, in a different town, every single day.

Cover Image via NBC