Gender & Identity, Life

Stop telling us that we were “asking for it”

In as little as a month’s time, Brock Turner, sentenced to six months in jails for sexual assault, will be able to buy a train ticket and sit down in the seat next to me while I am on my way to work.

Earlier this week, Austin Wilkerson was sentenced to two years of “work release” for feigning to care about the well-being of an unconscious woman, raping her, bad-mouthing her to his friends, and then –wait for it – admitting and apologizing for it in a court of law. 

In as little as a month’s time, Brock Turner, sentenced to six months in jails for sexual assault, will be able to buy a train ticket and sit down in the seat next to me while I am on my way to work.

The uproar surrounding Turner’s case started with the powerful survivor statement and his six-month sentencing – even though the prosecution recommended six years. Anger continued to rip through social media as his family made statements shedding blame everywhere, except on their convicted son.

In Wilkerson’s case, we were listening for these results. We almost expected them. 

Outraged is my first response to these light sentencings, but soon that anger gives way to fear. My fear is rooted in the lack of consequences for attacks on the female body, and what that means for my safety as I move through the world.

As women, we are taught that our safety depends on controlling our environment. We’re told to stay chaperoned, to carry pepper spray, not to take unnecessary risks. We are looking constantly over our shoulders for the next danger.

But we shouldn’t have to be.

We all know the statistics. According to RAINN, 1 in every 6 women will be a survivor of rape or attempted rape. Within our judicial system, these attacks on our bodies are overlooked, given minimal punishment, or never prosecuted based on lack of evidence, especially in examples where the accused is a white male of some financial privilege.

When these assaults do enter the news or our judicial system, often the survivor finds their character under direct attack, particularly in small communities. Questions are raised regarding what a woman can do differently: What’s her background? What was she wearing? How much has she had to drink? Where were her friends, her boyfriend, her husband?

Beyond the fact that these questions clearly reflect the misogyny existing with our social system, they seek to place some of the blame on the survivor, thereby taking the blame off of the shoulders of perpetrators. As women, we’re taught to fade out, not wanting to do anything that can be determined as “asking for it.”

This teaches certain men, given they are able to afford good counsel, that putting women’s safety at risk is okay. The backlash towards survivors shows them that there will be little to no repercussions. Our society quite literally gives them that pass.

In both these cases, the judges cited the lasting impact jail and punishment would have on the perpetrators. These judges fail to see how the crime will be continuously impacting the victim. These judges fail to see how their decisions will continuously impact women walking around in the world.

This response is why the safety of women remains so fragile. Turner and Wilkerson are just two cases in a sea of this happening on college campuses, in the workplace, amongst people women count on as friends. As women, we’ve been taught to be silent and shamed by these results. I’m refusing to be silent about them anymore. We need to keep up this conversation.

So how do women keep themselves safe? How do I keep myself safe?

Articles like Top 10 Safety Tips for Women, which recommends women “stay aware” and “trust their instincts” among other obvious platitudes don’t help us.

Apps like bSafe, which requires someone to be virtually watching your every move don’t help us.

These things do not make me feel safe. I do not expect them to be able to protect me from the Brock Turners and Austin Wilkersons of the world while I’m out at a party or bar with friends, while I’m out jogging, while I’m riding the train to and from work. These things don’t keep me from checking over my shoulder while I walk to meet friends, even on a crowded city street.

The reality is that we are teaching women that it’s their role to be afraid, and we’re teaching the non-violent men in our communities that we need them to keep us safe. This is just a modern day version of the Damsel in Distress we all grew up knowing.

It is not enough to ask women to watch out for one another.

It is not immediate enough to talk about teaching the next generation of boys to respect our bodies.

That respect needs to come sooner, and it starts by taking violations against our bodies seriously now.

The consequences are what’s important to this conversation. We need the fear to shift from women to the potential perpetrators. That’s when I’ll feel safer. It’s when we’ll all feel safer.

While I know that coming up with adequate consequences and enforcing those laws will not solve all crimes against the female body, I believe that, as a society, we need to ensure women fair attention and due diligence is being paid to their safety.  

These light sentences for violent crimes make one thing clear to women: a man with a privileged background has the right to pose a threat to the female body. Her body. Our bodies.

And I’m fearful of that right.

  • Laila Alawa

    Laila is The Tempest’s founder and CEO. Laila has given a TED Talk, appeared on BBC World News and NPR, and contributes on women’s issues and entrepreneurship to Forbes and The Guardian. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media and’s inaugural The Cafe 100, and recognized by the White House. Before founding The Tempest, Laila worked at the White House and Congress, and was previously at Princeton University.

  • Sage Curtis is a Bay Area poet and an advocate for female bodies. Her work has been published in numerous literary journals and she performs it whenever possible. Recently, she's been interested in the glamour and grit of addiction, how it affects women and what we pass along through family lines.