It is a tough time to be a parent of a girl in the United States. The recent headlines in the news give conflicting messages on the crime of sexual assault.
On the one hand, we have President Obama signing into law a Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights, which will give more of a voice to victims and protecting rape kits nationwide from destruction.
On the other, we have a Presidential candidate discussing grabbing women by their private parts, which, if done without consent, is a crime in all 50 states.
In the middle — several high profile cases of light sentences given to convicted rapists, as well as a movie director Nate Parker who is unapologetic for his acquittal in a rape case nearly two decades ago.
With all of these issues swirling around, what do we tell our daughters about sexual assault? How do we protect them?
Sentencing decisions by some judges in recent months have sent a deafening message: the perpetrator’s future is more important than the victim’s trauma. In California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and even Canada, stories have been released regarding the incredibly low sentences in relation to depraved acts.
The narrative is the same.
She was drunk
She didn’t respond.
He’s not a bad kid
He has a future
When we discuss mass incarceration/over incarceration, we can’t lose the basic fact that violent offenses need to be punished accordingly. A theft should not be treated the same as a robbery with force.
A sexual assault is a violent act, based not in desire but in the need to dominate and hurt .
As I examine the Stanford University (California) rape case, my heart breaks for the young woman who was so horribly violated. Her life will never be the same. Her letter lays out the classics symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from a traumatic event; I hope that she is getting the therapy and support she needs for the long road of rebuilding her life.
But there are additional victims in this case as well. The witnesses are victims as well. We often forget that witnessing a crime is traumatic. Often actors in the criminal justice system become immune. I’ve come to that painful realization by noticing the dark, cynical jokes we tell to diffuse a situation. I can look at autopsy photos while eating a sandwich (not preferable mind you, but time is often of the essence). However, the average person is not equipped to deal with such an experience. I look at the two brave young men who rescued the Stanford survivor, pinning down her rapist Brock Turner. The men were students from Sweden, who came to our country to work on their Masters degrees. They, no doubt, were enjoying California and the rich academic environment at Stanford…until that fateful night. That night, their innocence was shattered. So much so that when the police tried to talk to them about what they witnessed, one of the men was crying uncontrollably.
What is also disturbing to me is after the publicity the Stanford case garnered, a similar situation occurred in Colorado this August. Yet again, a campus rape, this time at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Yet again, a light sentence; 2 years of work release followed by 20 years of probation. The reason given by the judge? Because the defendant “has a future“. What about her future?
Also in August, a judge in Massachusetts sentenced a young man sexually assaulted TWO women to two years probation. His lawyer calls the defendant’s actions “a mistake”.
The defendant inserted his fingers into two women while they were sleeping.
I fail to see the mistake in that.
In Canada, it recently came to light that Judge Robin Camp asked a victim “why couldn’t you keep your knees together?” to avoid the rape. He further referred to the victim as “the accused”, and stated that “sex and pain often go together“. I guess he didn’t understand the dynamics of forced sex and violence, even though his own daughter was a victim.
Actors in the system, especially judges, must be aware of implicit bias. It differs from racism in that it is not a deliberate act against an ethnic group; but assumptions as to who belongs in prison and who does not can unfairly affect the decision making process. If two similarly situated individuals of different races would not receive the same sentence, there is a huge problem. That same concept of implicit bias applies to who can be a victim, or what is viewed as a “legitimate” rape.
Going back to the Stanford case, the judge has since transferred to the civil division. This is good, because there is clearly a disconnect in believing 6 months (with credit for time served effectively reducing it to 3 months) is appropriate for raping an unconscious woman. His lack of documented criminal history is not the beginning and end of his recidivism risk. One must look at the manner in which the crime was committed. The level of depravity — seeing someone vulnerable, becoming aroused, and attacking — shows the instincts of a sexual predator. The statements of the defendant’s father referring to “20 minutes of action” shows that he was raised in a household that condoned this type of behavior. If he lacks the moral compass to understand his behavior was wrong, his risk of recidivism increases even more. Additionally, it has come to light that the defendant repeatedly lied to officials, claiming that the crime was “consensual” in order to get a lesser sentence.
The latest debate around sexual assault involves Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker. In college, he and friend Jean Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student. They were tried; Parker was acquitted and Celestin was convicted, with the conviction later overturned. The prosecution declined to try the case again due to issues in locating witnesses 5 years later. Parker has been asked repeatedly about the incident, and refuses to apologize, stating he was falsely accused.
To be clear, false reports in sexual assault cases hover at 7%, but more importantly, 63% of assaults go unreported. What are we doing to change that number?
Not believing the victim is a hurdle, especially when alcohol is involved. Nate Parker was acquitted, making him legally innocent. He is not guilty, which means the prosecution couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Does that mean he is factually innocent? Maybe. Maybe not. The victim maintained until her death by her own hand that this crime occurred. He says he was falsely accused.
Was he part of the 7%? Someone has to be.
All we know is the tragedy that ensued on the victim’s side. She went through the worst case scenario — she told her story but was not believed. This is the deepest fear of all victims.
So what do we tell our girls? I have previously written on this topic: travel in groups when attending college parties, and take care of each other, especially if one of the group is heavily intoxicated. Try to always keep your wits about you. And if the worst case scenario happens — speak up immediately! Despite some judges who don’t sentence appropriately, the majority do. The only way to change perceptions and attitudes towards sexual assault is for victims to come forward. Yes, it is a risk — but silence will not bring justice. We have to support victims/survivors, letting them know that they are safe in telling their story. By victim blaming, we are sending a message to other women not to speak out.
No matter what, rape is not the victim’s fault. It is due to the actions of a defendant — the same way getting murdered is not the victim’s fault. We must make sure our girls understand this.
And for our men and boys — here is a simple British video that summarizes everything you need to know about sex. Just remember — unconscious people do not want tea. Or sex.