Trigger warning: discussion on rape and sexual violence
In early June, an open letter written by the victim of the Stanford rape case went viral. Intended for the sentence hearing of convicted rapist Brock Turner, it gave a heart-wrenching, detailed, and first-hand account of not only the rape but the emotional, mental and physical pain the victim experienced throughout the process of the trail.
Before the letter’s appearance on Buzzfeed, the case had gone practically unnoticed by the general public. After, however, it quickly became national news. It was shared millions of times on social media sites, read out loud on CNN by Ashleigh Banfield, and even publicly read by Congress members. This letter sparked national sympathy for the victim, detest for the rapist, and a call for action and punishment. Even more than that, it brought the reality of rape—specifically campus rape—into our homes.
We became invested in the story, demanding justice for the victim. We were outraged at Turner’s father’s infamous “20 minutes of action” comment, distraught by his mother’s plea to not send him to prison because “he won’t survive it,” and completely let down when the sentencing came back: six short months, three with good behavior.
Questions of privilege and rape culture arose. Brock Turner was the epitome of the “good all-American boy”: white, upper-middle class, star athlete, top college student. His sentence is white male privilege at its worst. While Brock Turner received six months, Cory Batey, a black 19-year-old star football player at Vanderbilt, received 15 to 25 years for the same exact crime. This is just one of many strikingly different sentences for the same crime due to race. Turner’s privilege not only played a part in his sentencing, but also the rape itself due to his entitlement.
Justice was demanded in this case, and very little was received. Brock Turner was convicted, will serve jail time, and will become a registered sex offender. These are wins, but it’s still not enough.
With anything that goes viral, I worry about its long-lasting effect. The victim’s letter touched the hearts of millions overnight, but is that enough for this country to finally realize that this is a major issue? That rape culture is not fiction, but a dangerous reality?
I don’t know, but I desperately hope so.
In order for this to not be another one of America’s fleeting moments of sympathy, we must realize that Brock Turner’s rape does not exist in a vacuum. He is not an exception to the rule, he is the rule. About 20% of women are raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, with the majority occurring in college. Most of these rapes happen during the first six weeks of freshman year, alarmingly referred to as “the red zone.” No other crime in America has this high of a rate, even when calculated over years.
Brock is just one example of thousands of rapes that haven’t even made it to trial. Haven’t made it past the dean’s office. Haven’t made it past the lips of victims. We are a nation of shaming and blaming, rather than believing and seeing — and the way our academic institutions deal with rape reflects that.
Universities have been known to downplay their actual numbers of sexual violence, meaning that their statistics could be up to 40 percent higher than what’s on record. As a concerned parent who has a child heading to college soon, you’d probably be likely to Google something like, “Schools with highest rape rates,” to make sure that your child doesn’t go to one of “those schools.” But “those schools” are those with the highest reported sexual violence. Reported statistics don’t necessarily equate with the actual statistics when it comes to campus sexual violence.
Sexual violence numbers are skewed because they lower admission rates and tarnish school reputation. Administration doesn’t want to have a sexual violence problem. But listen up, guys: every college in the United States has a sexual violence problem. Denying this reality is how administrations escape the problem and avoid dealing with it. Denying the existence of rape on campus — in any capacity — is silencing victims.
Needless to say, awareness of this issue is the key to combating it. However, awareness can only come when we begin to accept and listen to those who have already been hurt and suffering. We need to confront the problem of all unreported sexual violence. We need to realize that Brock Turner is the norm, one of the most dangerous norms that exists in this country. We must recognize that when we ignore, reject, disbelieve claims of sexual violence, we contribute to the problem. When victims are silenced, so is our awareness of this issue, and the issue itself.