This week, as news spread of the seemingly light punishment for former Stanford student and athlete Brock Turner after his rape conviction, social media erupted with righteous indignation. It is, of course, worth celebrating that the victim’s voice is being heard and even broadcast after her assault on January 18, 2015. However, the general public outrage feels like bullshit.
Let me explain.
Years ago, when next fall’s incoming freshmen were being born, two rapes at another venerable university generated similar debate and outrage on campus and in the media. Joshua Elster, a Harvard student, pled guilty to three counts of rape, two counts of assault and battery and one count of indecent assault and battery.
The Harvard Crimson reported:
Under the conditions of the sentence issued by Judge Paul A. Chernoff, the former Kirkland House resident is prohibited from further contact with the victim and cannot walk on Harvard property or enter University buildings during three years [of probation].
After that time, Elster could legally return, pending approval by Harvard’s Administrative Board. But Elster’s lawyer, Kenneth F. D’Arcy ’58 said Elster “has realized his education, if he seeks to follow it further, would be at another institution [than Harvard]. This was difficult for him to accept at first.”…
Elster, speaking through his attorney, had contended that he and the victim had engaged in consensual sex.
But Assistant District Attorney Thomas F. O’Reilly told The Crimson that the prosecution had enough strong evidence to bring the case to trial, including pictures of a bruise on the victim’s cheekbone and numerous scratches on her back and chest, reports by doctors and nurses and statements from witnesses who saw her immediately after the incident.
He added he does not view Elster as a serious enough threat to the community to require jail time.
Elster’s victim apparently felt otherwise, and left Harvard.
In the second case, Drew Douglas pled guilty to indecent assault and battery, but apparently this was still not enough to convince some Harvard faculty that he should be dismissed. Five faculty members submitted a motion for a lesser penalty, writing that they concluded Douglas was not a threat to the community. According to the Crimson article from 1999:
The woman assaulted by Douglas said yesterday that the continued debate over consent and miscommunication has reopened old wounds.
“[The account in Tuesday’s Boston Globe] makes the events sound like a harmless date after which I was ‘upset,’ the woman wrote in an e-mail message. “I was upset…because I was raped in my own bed against my will.”
In the intervening years, rape continues to happen every day, both on and off campuses everywhere, and yet much about public standards of dialogue and media coverage remains unchanged.
In 2007, the New York Times published a “Modern Love” column by a woman (writing under the pseudonym Ashley Cross) who dated Douglas after he left Harvard. Cross trashed Douglas’s victim, whom she had never met, as “hysterical” and “intoxicated”, and complained about her sexual disappointment with Douglas after he started counseling required by his probation. In response to widespread criticism for publishing what amounted to a baseless re-telling of a crime Douglas had admitted to, the editor of the column asserted, perversely, that “We felt the Modern Love column was not a venue to reargue the case but to explore this angle of the aftermath.” Talk about reopening old wounds.
(Check out the Onion’s incisive parody of this brand of hypocrisy in their 2011 two-minute video, “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.”)
When public outrage erupts once in a while, it is directed at easy villains. The embedded message is that if we recall this one judge, shame this one father, punish this one rapist, we can all sleep peacefully feeling like we did the right thing and move on with our lives.
Victims face a more complex road after an assault. What does it mean to be part of a community that doesn’t consider your rape “a threat”? How do you remain part of such a community? Is it possible to feel safe or to heal fully in a world where those in positions of authority do not acknowledge the crime, or the wounds it inflicted? What does it mean to leave, if that is even an option? As years pass, how does it feel to hear the same stories, participate in the same arguments, observe the same activism unfold over and over again?
The fact that Brock Turner is getting time at all and that we are reading about it makes this case stand out from so many others where the victim’s voice is silenced: by shame, by a lack of courage like that shown by those who intervened, and by a system that cannot acknowledge that “accomplished” young men are capable of rape.
I celebrate the amplification of the victim’s voice in this case. I would like to see it change our course to a more meaningful, more difficult path that eventually ends the institutional denial and public hypocrisy that leaves a majority of victims unheard and a majority of perpetrators “confused”, unrepentant, or unpunished.
Righteous indignation finds easy targets in stories that reflect our prevailing notions of what “real rape” looks like. It is cathartic to get riled up about what happened late at night “behind a dumpster”. We certainly find it easier to throw stones when the perpetrator is not someone we grew up with, a family member, or someone we consider a friend. The greater the outrage, the more it sets us apart, relieves us of our own accountability and self-examination.
Separating victims, perpetrators, and acts of sexual assault into neat categories is a tactic, conscious or not, that has long been used to invalidate and discredit the most difficult, yet basic, definition of sexual assault: the unwanted touching and/or penetration of one human being by another without consent.
This definition does not require the act to be committed with a weapon, by a stranger, by a man against a woman, in a dark alley, or against a completely unconscious victim. It can be more nuanced than that. It can be committed by the smiling blond angel in the yearbook photo, not the bedraggled guy in the mug shot, and it can still be rape.
Rape can be committed even by those who look like us and are loved by us, and that is where we prefer outrage to more complicated conversations. Rapists can be accomplished young men; they are our sons, our brothers, our friends, our lovers. They can look innocent. They may not have “meant” to hurt anyone. But they did. And these crimes will continue until we can reconcile just how pervasive they are with just how how difficult it is to change the culture that, in the aftermath, casts victims either as heroes or liars.
Outrage is a mask we wear in public while most victims, even those with “clear-cut” cases, cannot reveal themselves for fear of retribution, public judgment, and even worse, a lifetime of being defined by the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. What does that tell us?
For decades, if not longer, the mask of outrage has not changed a damn thing. Change is what happens when the most privileged and powerful among us take off our masks and open ourselves to bearing witness to the most inconvenient truths, internal and external. It’s time to try something new.