Just a few months ago social media was flooded with posts surrounding the Brock Turner case at Stanford. The nation was outraged by the short 6-month sentence Brock Turner received and the lack of weight such a crime seemed to carry. The nation was appalled that a crime such as sexual assault- one that forever alters the life of the survivor in such tremendous ways- was taken so lightly and made out to be some mistake that is expected of college boys. And here we are, just three months later, as Brock Turner is being released from jail after serving only half of his already short sentence. Although not quite with the same magnitude, the nation is once again outraged- and rightly so.
But I’d like us to also remember that the 3 months Brock Turner spent in jail are 3 months longer than 97% of people who commit sexual assault. Here’s the breakdown according to RAINN:
The extremely invasive procedure and re-traumatization of collecting evidence and attack on the survivor during trial means that more often than not, sexual assault will go unreported. Many who do attempt to report are encouraged not to file charges due to the brutality of the trial and unlikelihood of conviction. So really, Brock Turner’s sentence is more of the exception rather than the rule in that the majority of those who have committed similar acts will never even be charged. Understandably, there has been a recent push for longer jail sentences for and increased awareness, especially on college campuses, around sexual assault.
But the issue is rooted much deeper than more convictions and longer jail sentences. It’s deeper than dismissing Brock Turner as a terrible human being, his father as someone who sheltered his child too much, and trying to remove Judge Aaron Persky from the bench. In no way am I excusing the behavior of the people involved; what I am saying is that the issue of sexual assault is not only and individual problem, but one rooted in the systems of our society as well. It’s rooted in cultural beliefs about women. It’s rooted in the power of wealth. It’s rooted in wanting only to be divisive. It’s rooted in the silence. And maybe most of all, it’s rooted in our belief that being outraged is enough- in our belief that we each have very little, if any, responsibility in doing anything to change it.
When we talk about justice for survivors of sexual assault we generally mean within the criminal justice system, but justice is much wider and deeper than that. If we only address the issue through the criminal justice system, we will still end up with a bunch of broken people. We can increase prison sentences and implement harsher punishments- we can remove judges from the bench and we can blame fathers and mothers for not teaching their children to value other people, but at the end of the day we will still end up with a bunch of individuals whose lives have been forever altered. We will still end up with a bunch of survivors who must work through trauma. They will still double and triple check the locks on the doors and windows. They will still wake up to nightmares, fear walking down the street alone, and be triggered by the innocent touch of a friend or a partner. They will still have code words and friends on speed dial and will still be keenly aware of every sound and movement. Healing is possible, but it will not be as a result of longer prison sentences, but rather as a result of the support of others, professional help, and cultural change.
Addressing the issue of sexual assault is overwhelmingly complex, yet at the same time incredibly simple. It requires us to suspend our “us and them” mentalities and realize that sexual assault has impacted those in our inner circles. It involves speaking up when jokes and comments are made that may seem harmless, but really perpetuate a culture that minimizes sexual assault. It means advocating to break down the barriers that hinder reporting, conviction, and sentencing. It means that we must support the survivors and educate both men and women who do not understand the weight their words may carry. It means we must do more than simply be angry. We must act.