A Severe Impact

It’s summer. I’m supposed to be immersed in the past. I’m meant to be writing about Jackie Kennedy and the 1960 campaign, about women at mid-century looking to the future and wondering what it will hold, about mass media’s ability to craft narratives about and for women and about women’s agency in shaping those narratives. And I am. But I keep getting dragged back to the present, right now, thanks to the ongoing barrage of truly heartbreaking information related to the violent rape committed by and the infuriatingly lenient punishment given to Brock Turner.

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In the ways that my worlds of work and the world are colliding, today I read this, from an essay in a 1978 collection about the portrayal of women in mass media: While alleged bra-burning and women’s rejection of the accoutrements of femininity regularly appeared in journalistic reporting of the women’s movement, “the other issues of women’s liberation were less prominent: the extent and implications of women’s lower pay scales; the chronic and clear-cut (to women) discrimination in education, job, and credit access; the stereotyping by the media of women as trivial-minded, unreliable, and mercurial; and the invidious administration (or non administration) of rape laws.

Well. Some issues, it seems, just won’t go out of style. Except that here, in 2016, it seems the law had worked. Turner was found guilty on three counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person; sexual penetration of an intoxicated person; and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. But the sentencing. Oh, the sentencing: six months in county jail, of which Turner is likely to serve three. Everything old is new again.

I have felt vague-to-full-blow nausea with each new revelation from the Brock Turner case. Beyond my horror at Turner’s own abhorrent actions (and having just realized he’s APPEALING THE CONVICTION), like so many others, I am disgusted by the apologist language being used to refer to the violent, violating rape he committed and the attempts to shield him from the consequences of his brutal, brutal attack on another human being. In requesting parole for his son, Turner’s father wrote, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve….That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” His words clearly resonated with Judge Aaron Perskey who delivered the sentence and declared, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Beyond the very conscious word choice – “action” rather than “violent rape” – both parties underplay the severity of the crimes committed by Turner and instead pine for what might have been. First of all: that ship has sailed. This is a topic for another time, but these claims about the rape as a “first offense” and being so out of character for Turner…I have my doubts. If you have this in you to do when drunk and prone to “foolish”actions aka INTENSE PHYSICAL VIOLENCE, you have this in you. And you’ve long *had* it in you. But more importantly, this didn’t happen to him. HE DID THIS. HE COMMITTED THIS CRIME. AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON. And that other person? She will live with this terrible, terrible attack for well beyond the next “20 plus years” of her life. As for “severe impact”? Yes, this “action” will have a severe and lasting impact on her. As she noted in her beautiful and terrible and brave letter to her attacker (https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.qdJE4Wa9D#.id8LNQrzX): “It is embarrassing how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life, always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.” Every day, she is working to get back to herself, but what happened, she read, “stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.”

And the “severe impact” goes even beyond Turner’s victim. I’m set to visit one of my best friends next week. We’ve been excited to see each other and get our girls together again. In an exchange about this case, I emailed, “We’re teaching them about the buddy system next Friday.” And she responded, “Seriously. How early is too early? Probably never.” My daughter is two. Hers is one. And this is our thought process in raising them to face the world. Their lives are the ones likely to never be the ones that we dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. The same can be said of the lives of all women and all girls living in a world where the threat of sexual violence is real, but the consequences for that violence remain only vaguely defined and unequally applied.

And yet. While I despair, I do not only despair. Also from the aforementioned collection of essays, re: women and media: “The media report women’s issues selectively and, apparently, through a man’s sense of the world.” I know we can argue about how much has changed, but the response to the Turner case – the outcry, the indignation, the rage – that tells us things have changed. Are changing. And for the better. If you’ve not read the letter written and read by the woman Turner attacked, do so now (link above). Her willingness to – again – relive what happened to her, to vocalize how it’s affected her: that is bravery and determination and the steel will to have a voice and make it heard. As she notes, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” Until today. Bravo to Buzzfeed for printing the letter in full. And for all that we can say about Facebook and Twitter and social media more broadly, the sharing of that letter, the dialog it opens up: that is magnificent.

In Danielle McGuire’s incredible At the Dark End of the Street, she writes about the importance of black women’s voice in naming the physical and sexual violence they endured and by whom in the Jim Crow South. They motivated communal action in response to the ongoing threat posed by white men who faced little recompense for attacks on black women and black girls. They motivated communal action against a broader system of inequality and injustice. Today, I saw McGuire tweet about the young woman raped by Turner and her letter with the notation of the importance of #testimony. I don’t know what consequences this sentencing will have for Judge Perskey. Or the consequences the case will have for Turner and his victim. I don’t know. But my hope is that the young woman’s voice, the publicity afforded it, and the awareness generated will shape conversations and viewpoints so that acts like these do, in fact, have a severe impact on future responses to and punishments for sexual violence of this kind.