It’s sad that it takes yet another rape case treated with malapropos for me to find the inspiration to post, but alas, anger fuels my being in so many ways (those ways of mine that aren’t fueled by laziness). (Sidenote: is “fueled by laziness” an oxymoron?)
News media’s general modus operandi for the treatment and portrayal of criminals is to present them in the guise of the “big, bad, scary” trope to pique the very divided attention of – and instill fear in – its viewers. The average consumer has wet dreams over a crime narrative (real or fictitious) where the perpetrator is not only caught and rightfully punished in the end, but more importantly, neatly fits their perception of “bad guy”. I could elucidate decades of theory about the cultural “other”, one of the many concepts upon which scapegoats, stereotypes, and colonialism/racism/all kinds of isms are predicated. Comic-book villains come to mind. As do newscasts boasting the sketchiest, blurriest mugshot of a non-white suspect, preferably in an orange jumpsuit and visibly coming off a high. Unless you’re Brock Turner, the Stanford student [/white, well-to-do athlete] who received an inarguably lenient sentence for rape the week before last.
Turner’s well-circulated mugshot may as well be a press photo, depicting him smiling and in a suit. And reading about his trial made me quite literally scream out loud to my empty apartment’s lofty ceilings, asking “When are we going to stop talking about the effects a rape conviction will have on a fucking rapist’s life?!” Turner’s dad’s thoroughly inappropriate plea to the judge focused on how the “events” and subsequent verdict have left the teen’s life “deeply altered forever” – “shattered,” even – and how him having to register as a sex offender will “forever alter where he can live, visit, work, and how he will be able to interact with people and organizations.” His father goes on to wax Romantically about how the poor boy has lost his appetite and, most notoriously, states that the sentence is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” (Yeah, I’m just not going to even touch that. At all.) Wow. Maybe he shouldn’t have, I don’t know, sexually assaulted someone? I’m so terribly sorry that his own actions are having such a negative effect on his life. But in all earnestness, as with any crime, they 100% should. I hope his life, his reputation, and his future are forever tarnished and yes, potentially ruined by this. That’s simply the price one pays for committing an atrocity (though based on his father’s letter, you’d think Turner’s crime was just excessive drinking and the regrettable decisions that ensue… which in this case, happen to be sexual assault.) If this was any other criminal act, no one would be mentioning how depressed the trial has made the perpetrator, or what his damn swimming stats were. His dad’s terribly misguided plea would have been somehow easier to digest if it was some sort of audacious diatribe, rather than the dominant ethos of the most largely influential cultural group (middle-aged white men), calmly and simply put as if fact. This is in the same rape culture vein that fed the discourse and coverage surrounding the infamous Steubenville rape cases – which in reporting, CNN stated how “incredibly difficult” it was to watch “these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their lives fell apart”. A vein I wish would just open its wound-like mouth and spurt all over, screaming for a brief minute or two until its source is drained.
Adding to the disgust level here is that Turner isn’t “consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression” because of the heinous, pervasive crime he inflicted upon another, but because he was caught. Because of the repercussions. And his accolades, or number of friends, or lack of criminal history shouldn’t trivialize what he’s done. Considering the reaction of the male figure who raised him, I’m frankly not surprised by Turner’s behaviour both in committing the crime and in its aftermath.
Sarah Lunnie wrote a beautiful piece for Slate that discusses how those close to a criminal may not be able to reconcile the person they know first-hand with a person who would commit a crime. She uses the example of impulsively pushing a stranger onto the subway tracks, where the individual who does the pushing neither loses their identity nor stays the same person. “[They] will always be the person who did that—but that doesn’t mean [they’ll] stop being the person [they were] before. To shove the stranger is to become both.”
Outside of those we are personally acquainted with, we do hold a similar notion, but reversed in a way, for people affiliated with crimes generally. We want criminals to neatly fit into the conceptual box we’ve built for “bad guy.” We want rapists to be balaclava-clad strangers lurking in the dark, with a history of crime and a dingy apartment in a rough neighbourhood. The archetype just fits. An Aryan-looking, well-respected athlete enrolled at an expensive Ivy League university does not. This same line of thinking is what leads cross-examiners to push how slutty, how promiscuously dressed, how outgoing and sexual and heedless a sex assault victim is. Because those things can’t possibly fit into our idea of a rape victim.
The problem? Your archetype, if we mean a textbook example of something, is wrong. A rapist is often a “normal” guy. A guy you, as an outsider, can’t pick out of a lineup and say, “Hey, that looks like a criminal.” Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. People don’t want to imagine that someone who is seemingly average and even well-respected in society can also be a rapist. That their friend, their brother, their coworker could be a rapist. It’s so much easier to pin it on some scary OTHER and then either deny or justify it when some “normal” guy who is good at sports and goes to a reputable school rapes somebody (or dismiss it as 20 minutes of action that deserves a slap on the wrist). Sexism, sexual assault, rape culture, and misogyny/patriarchy as a whole are so inextricably ingrained and normalized in our society that yes, of course it’s that normal guy who works a floor below you or sits in class next to you or who you had a beer with last Friday. Not all men, but of course it could be you.
* I suggest any readers of this post also read the victim’s moving statement that she read to Turner in court. *