For a while now I have absorbed the outrage expressed on social media as people have lashed out in response to the sentencing and then reduced sentence of Brock Turner, rapist, ex-Stanford University swimmer, by Judge Aaron Persky. Unable to identify my own feelings on the matter, or maybe just wanting to avoid them, I tacitly processed the reactions pouring out of my friends and media outlets online. Then, as I begin to unpack my thoughts and feelings on the matter, I discovered I had this to say:
Thank you for being outraged.
Thank you for being unwilling to compliantly accept this sentencing and time served as acceptable.
Thank you for calling out the privilege.
Thank you for challenging the authority.
Thank you for disavowing the institution that protects oppressors.
Thank you for proclaiming this sentencing as inadequate.
Thank you for reading the survivor’s letter.
Thank you for pounding on the social media drum of indignation about injustice.
Thank you for not being silent.
And this is where I get stuck, the lump in my throat and the stinging in my eyes make it hard for me to continue.
But thank you.
As much as the Brock Turner case has led to a collective outcry about light sentencing and time served for convicted sex offenders, this is nothing new. Now the rest of society knows what sexual assault survivors have known forever: light sentences- if any at all- are the norm for sexual assault if you are a white male. Justice doesn’t exist for sexual assault survivors.
For every Facebook status you make ranting how this sentencing and the words of the judge are woefully insufficient and pathetic attempts at justice, you are taking a stand not only with the survivor of Brock’s heinous “actions” (rape, dad, in your letter the word you were looking for was rape) but with survivors everywhere whose assailant received ridiculously inadequate sentences for their abuse or, more than likely, none at all.
You are standing with me, as a sexual assault survivor.
And you are standing with my daughters too.
I will never forget the day I sat in a courtroom 11 years ago and heard the sentencing of my daughters’ abuser. As he stood before the judge, his conviction already given, this too was a young man with “promise” in his future, found guilty of aggravated sexual assault, first degree felony. He received 30 days in juvenile detention, 3 years probation, restricted internet access (questionable enforcement of this one), curfew, court mandated therapy, and because he was a minor, deferred adjudication.
It was called a “crime of opportunity” as if my daughters coming across his path was a chance he simply couldn’t pass up on, a deal too good to refuse, and he never would have done it if they hadn’t been available to him. As though it wasn’t really his fault. It was mine, their father’s, or even their own for existing near him. His sentence reflected the idea that somehow he had made a grave mistake he was tricked into making like a deceptive marketing gimmick.
What I didn’t know then was that of that slap-on-the-wrist sentence, he would only serve 10 days and I would discover that fact when I ran into him at Target with my daughter- one of his victims- when he was still supposed to be incarcerated.
After the sentencing hearing, when I broke down in the debriefing with the assistant district attorney demanding answers for how such a sentencing could be acceptable for such a crime, the assistant DA, a mother of a young daughter herself, told me he wasn’t considered a high recidivism risk because he was a good student, from a good family, with caring parents. She didn’t say it but I knew because I saw the kids in court and the sentences being delivered, it also helped that he was white. Teen boys with darker skin than him received heavier sentences for misdemeanors and I saw it unfold. In a kind voice she told me that as horrible as what he did was, we didn’t really want to ruin his promising future with a severe sentence.
I didn’t know what to say then. Part of me still doesn’t, the other part of me could write volumes. In the moment I simply said “Excuse me?” and then “what about my 3 year old and 5 year old daughters’ futures?” She went on to say how our girls would be fine, they were lucky to have parents like us who were actively getting them the help they needed. More fluff that had me questioning if I was a truly horrible person for wanting what I thought was justice for my daughters.
It was too raw in that moment for me to find the words I wanted to say and so I left the courthouse that day in stunned silence that in the sentencing of one found guilty of a first degree felony aggravated sexual assault of a 5 year old, the promise of his future was considered more important than the agony of my daughters’ present and the question of their futures.
There was nobody else to express the outrage I couldn’t muster within myself. That was it. There were no social media posts decrying the injustice of such a sentencing, no analysts reviewing the case, no headlines exposing the corruption of rape culture in our justice system. I went home and focused all my energy on helping my daughters heal even as I knew one important piece of their healing was missing- justice. The silence was deafening.
That silence is what most sexual assault survivors hear.
The assistant DA didn’t get it, it was never about ruining his life. My husband and I and our daughters were never hoping for his life to be destroyed. In our sentencing recommendation we hadn’t even asked for juvenile detention because we weren’t convinced that was a helpful rehabilitation option. Instead, we had spent a significant amount of time researching therapies and treatment programs with proven rates in reducing recidivism and providing intense therapy. Built into our sentencing recommendation were measures to protect him while ensuring he would receive demonstrated effective strategies to address the underlying issues that lead to sexual violence while protecting our daughters and other young children from him. We wanted his life to be promising and whole again, not by glossing over what happened, but by doing the work that it would take to get there all while valuing justice for our daughters. None of it would happen, the victim’s advocates sentencing recommendation nothing more than a useless exercise.
We knew then as we know now that conviction in sexual assault cases is difficult enough with a high percentage of cases being dropped, and that’s of the ones that are even investigated, with so few resulting in charges. We also know that conviction and sentencing is a powerful piece of a survivor’s own healing. A sense of justice, that people even care what happened, that the survivors aren’t to blame, directly contribute to how survivors process their assault.
Lack of charges, conviction, and sentencing can be devastating on top of the abuse that got them there in the first place.
After going through the tortuous legal process of reporting the abuse, the rape kit (which, make no mistake, is like being raped again because nobody wants it, consent is given only to catch the perpetrator who made it necessary in the first place, the experience is miserable with literal probing into the existing wounds of violation), the investigation, the waiting, the official charges, the waiting, the DA interviews, the forensic investigation, the waiting, the hearings, the waiting, the deeper questioning, the depositions, the trial preparations, the cross-examination practice, the waiting, evidence review, the waiting, the trial, the waiting, the deliberations, the ridiculous words that spew from the defense attorney’s mouth about the victim and the perpetrator, the waiting… then to experience justice taking a hike and pity expressed for the one that got us all there in the first place is a mental and emotional wounding that defies words.
And it’s a lonely wound. One that survivors often have dismissed with platitudes that at least they’re ok (but no, they’re not ok), that they’re so strong (they don’t feel strong), that they’re so brave, that they’re finally able to move past it all (no, no they’re not). So often nobody protests the incompetence that enables rape culture and abandons survivors, sacrificing justice for a promising future, dismissing accountability for negligible impact. This is a lonely and silent wound.
So thank you. Thank you for finding the words to denounce this irresponsible justice that re-victimizes survivors and enables sexual predators. Thank you for stepping in when indulgence reigns over justice and for leveling a sentence that is indeed going to have an impact, as sentences are expected to do. Thank you for seeing the survivors. Thank you for wanting justice for the survivors. Thank you for believing the survivors matter… that my daughters matter.
Thank you for standing with survivors.
Your outrage is appreciated.