How Rape Culture Evolved to Excuse Privileged Men

Features. Posted 2 years ago

Elfy Scott

Image: Convicted rapist Brock Turner. Image Source.

The case of Brock Turner’s sexual assault of an unconscious 22 year-old woman has set the Internet ablaze in recent weeks with an onslaught of outrage and frustration that such an abhorrent crime could see such minimal consequence.

The story received such widespread international attention largely due to the anonymous victim’s letter published earlier this month by Palo Alto Online and consequently a Buzzfeed reporter. The letter detailed the full extent of the trauma and anguish the victim experienced as a result of Turner’s actions on the night of January 18th, 2015, as she lay unconscious on the ground behind a dumpster following a fraternity party.

The coverage of the case has since been riddled with controversies, including a quote from Turner’s father diminishing the sexual crime his son perpetrated to “20 minutes of action”, while Turner’s own childhood friend and drummer of (now vastly spurned band) Good English, penned a public letter bizarrely contemplating where to draw the line and “stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists”. Both quotes are deplorable examples of the ‘kids-being-kids’ (and the even worse, ‘boys-being-boys’) justification that is too often witnessed following heinous crimes such as these.

The woefully short six-month sentence that Turner received from Santa Clara County Judge, Aaron Persky has rightfully faced immense backlash and subsequently incited a campaign attracting over 650,000 signatures to recall him and remove him from the bench in the process. Unfortunately, Turner is also likely to only serve three months of this sentence assuming good behaviour – an imprisonment period which seems almost ludicrously inadequate for the serious nature of the crime.

While the Brock Turner case has become a reprehensible illustration of both double victimisation for sexual assault victims and a divisive story in our approach to rape cases amongst adolescents, the story has also come to more generally represent how both the law and society recognise sex offenders and how this process has become extremely problematic.

In the 1990s, the US witnessed a series of sweeping law reforms regarding sexual offences, mostly related to the hysteria and panic associated with child molestation. Sex offender laws were intended to prevent sexual violence, identify potential perpetrators, and justly punish those who were convicted of sexual offences.

The term ‘rapist’ was displaced and suddenly substituted with the monolithic, cataclysmic term ‘sex offender’. Besides the prison sentences that accompanied it, the very act of labelling somebody a sex offender became a significant act that carried with it immense weight.

Committing a crime that warranted the label was suddenly associated with fierce stigma, and societal alienation. Prosecutors looked to the psychology of offenders for explanations of crime, relying on cues of deviance and poor upbringing as intersecting reasons for this sort of appalling behaviour. Rape became a crime that was only conceivably committed by ‘outsiders’ – aliens with amoral characteristics that had a reason to violate a society’s moral fabric. Rape became a crime almost exclusively committed by ‘misfits’ and therefore ‘logically’, the lower classes.

The issue of defining men as sexual offenders became unfortunately circuitous. Men who were not perceived to fit within accepted definitions of the inherent outsider and social deviant should therefore not be chastised as sex offenders. Meanwhile, men who were perceived as belonging to the mould were quickly criminalised – essentially believed to rape because they were rapists.

Those who belong to acceptable community structures as intrinsic ‘insiders’ are difficult to conceive of as committing a crime that belongs to the sub-human, generally presumed lower class outsider. Why would they, after all? Middle class, educated, white men don’t need to rape women to get those “20 minutes of action,” right?

The classist definitions of sexual offenders are weaved insidiously into the vernacular of prosecutors – Jamie L. Small in her 2015 report, “Classing Sex Offenders” found that prosecutors and defence attorneys almost exclusively described sexual defendants as ‘bums’, ‘creeps’, ‘drunks’ and ‘deadbeats’. A 20-something kid from the swimming team of a prestigious college could hardly be plausibly described as any of the above.

An unfortunate logical by-product of the changes to the conception of sexual offenders in the US was the apprehension to slander the names of good kids who weren’t identified as ‘bums’ or ‘creeps’. They were people who had made mistakes – the real criminals were out there, lurking in parks or something.

When Judge Aaron Persky was confronted with a student who attended Stanford and was an integral part of the school’s swimming team (not so many years after he himself had attended the school as lacrosse captain), he saw a kid who couldn’t possibly be heavily pathologized as a rapist because of his social ‘standing’.

Turner’s own friend believed that “rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists”. Therein lies the issue – a rapist isn’t necessarily an outsider, or a ‘bum’, or a ‘creep’, a rapist is a person who has raped another human.

The ‘sex offender’ is not a verifiable identity or pathology or even physiology, it is a person who has committed a sexual offence – a fact that should have been considered with far more punitive action in the case of Stanford rapist, Brock Turner.

Read more about this topic here:

Why Do We Find it So Hard to Believe Good Men do Bad Things?