In some ways, women have made huge strides in the last few decades. Careers that had been all male — doctors, engineers, even combat jobs in the military — are now open to women. Just last week, Hillary Clinton became the first female presumptive presidential candidate of a major party.
But then we heard about an extremely light sentence given to a Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus — and his father’s trivialization of the rape as “20 minutes of action.” Suddenly, it seemed not much had really changed.
In the 1960s and ’70s, feminists showed that rape is a crime of violence, not sex. Laws were changed to remove some of the “blame the victim” bias in the system, e.g., the need to show significant physical injuries to “prove” she didn’t consent.
But clearly, the broader American culture didn’t keep up with the laws. Survivors still have to fight to be believed when they report the crime. Defense attorneys can still dissect their lives in excruciating detail in court.
A few years ago, a U.S. Congressman suggested women couldn’t get pregnant during a “legitimate rape” because their bodies would “shut the whole thing down.” One in five women will be sexually assaulted during college, while women in the military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Too many men still see women as objects for their own gratification.
A few years ago, a video of a woman walking on the streets of New York went viral. It showed the nearly constant stream of catcalls directed at her by men she passed. Some were simple hellos, while others were more menacing, sexually explicit comments. Some men actually followed her, continuing to verbally harass her for minutes on end.
Men who watched the video expressed shock at what they saw, but it was sadly familiar to most women.
The reality for women is that you don’t know if a street harasser is all talk or if he might try to grab you. I don’t think men really understand how much this awareness of the constant possibility of assault wears on women. We may not consciously think about it, but it’s always there, in the back of our minds.
Which brings me to the outrage with Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s sentence. Here was a case where the rapist was caught in the act, and yet the focus appeared to be on how hard the case had been on him. The judge noted the “severe impact” a prison sentence would have on this once-promising young man to justify Turner’s six-month sentence.
Contrast this with the case of another 19-year-old athlete, football player Cory Batey, who raped an unconscious woman at Vanderbilt University three years ago. As with the Stanford case, both Batey and the woman had been drinking. In both cases, there was ample evidence of the athlete’s guilt. Batey was sentenced to 15 to 25 years in prison.
Batey is black. Turner is white.
The question is how to turn outrage at Turner’s light sentence into lasting change. In court, the woman Turner attacked read a 12-page statement that is devastating in its honesty about the pain she and her family have endured since her attack. She also eloquently indicts the judicial system that, in effect, victimized her a second time during the trial.
Everyone should read her statement and discuss it with your family and friends and, in particular, with your sons, husbands, boyfriends and brothers.
We should talk about the devastating impact of this crime on women and the dehumanizing impact on the men who do it. We should discuss the devastating impact on minority communities when rape laws are not equally enforced.
Hopefully, this case will stir enough discussion to finally change the culture that too often leads men to think they can get away with rape … or not to think at all.
If we make that cultural shift, women would not have to constantly worry about assaults, both physical and verbal, when they leave their home. If that happens, women — and men — would have truly made a huge stride into the future.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.