The world, or at least the internet, is up in arms about the paltry sentence given out by a judge in Santa Clara county, California last week. We could call it the Stanford University Swimmer case in which Brock Turner, age 20, raped an unconscious 23 year old woman behind a dumpster. The judge, Aaron Persky, sentenced Mr Turner to 6 months in jail (not prison) and three years of probation (which could be three months based on good behavior). The survivor wrote a stunning victim impact statement and authorized its release to the media. You can find it here, but be prepared as the statement has graphic descriptions of rape and medical procedures. To make the situation all the more complicated, Mr Turner’s father wrote a pre-sentencing report to the judge in which he laments, not his son’s actions, but that “these verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. … He has no prior criminal history and has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th 2015.”
The internet’s comment sections are not places for the faint of heart on a slow news day, and that is doubly true with anything revolving around the Stanford case. While many people are outraged, others are taking Mr Turner and his father’s side arguing that since alcohol was a factor it should mitigate responsibility, and that this promising young man’s life is forever ruined by what the survivor accused him of (not what he did). Still worse are the people hoping that Mr Turner will be raped in prison so that he can experience first hand what he did to someone else. Let me be perfectly clear … that is NOT ok. It is never, ever, ever acceptable to advocate anyone being raped, ever. It’s not a joke, it’s not a punishment, and acting as if it is perpetuates rape culture just as much as anything the judge, or Mr Turner’s father have said in this case.
Meanwhile, over in Texas there’s another storm brewing at Baylor University. Several players, and at least one coach, of the university’s championship winning football team have been accused of violence, and sexual assault. The allegations are that the university knew about what was going on, and covered it up, silencing victims, and working with the Waco, TX police department to make sure nothing was “leaked”. You can read a summary of the case from the Dallas News here.
All of this, plus the case against Mr Cosby, the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Brazil, and more, can leave you sick to your soul. It has made me want to scream, and cry (both of which I’ve done), and resort to some violence of my own (which I haven’t done and won’t do). And more than anything it has made me wonder a bit why I bother with all this Break The Silence Sunday work. The problem is so overwhelming, so big, that my little drop in the bucket seems utterly pointless against the ocean of rape culture, and violence.
But then, there’s the gentle, unexpected moment that reminds me what you can do with a bit of compassion, and one voice.
I have a friend who runs for fun which is something I do not understand at all, but she runs in all kinds of charitable events, and I go along to cheer her own, hold her jacket, time her races, and make sure she eats her pre-race banana.
On Saturday last, in the midst of a drizzly rain, we went off to one such race in Green Bay to benefit the Tourette’s Foundation. After my friend and the other runners set out I sat on a bench with another woman who was there to support her family members who were running. When the drizzle intensified we took to the nearby shelter where they had the pre-race bananas, and coffee, and rather delicious rice krispy treats. We talked about a whole range of things, and discovered that we knew several people in common, and then it was time to go to the finish line to cheer on the returning racers.
After the race we were standing around talking – the woman and her family, my friend, and I – and that’s when the woman noticed my “This is what a rape survivor looks like” button.
She was visibly stunned and said, “I’ve never met a rape survivor before.”
A slew of responses ran through my head, from frustration, to outrage, to anger, to laughter. A huge part of me wanted to shake her and scream.
Instead, as calmly and evenly as I could, I said, “yes you have.”
It wasn’t a moment to rail at her in outrage. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything.
It wasn’t the time to scream statistics at her. She wouldn’t have been able to listen just yet.
Instead, it was a time for one calm, even voice offering her the truth in a way she might be able to hear. “Yes you have.”
You’ve met a rape survivor because we sit next to you at church, and work in the next cubicle, and shop at the same grocery store. We’re on the PTA, the soccer dads, and the moms who bake cookies for the little league.
As we stood there, after the race, this woman and I, something in her heart changed. I don’t know where it will lead her, or what she will do with her new information (she was eventually open to the most basic statistic … one in six women in the U.S. in their lifetime will be raped or assaulted). But I do know that something changed in her. She has had an invitation to open her heart, and her mind to an entirely new way of looking at the world, and the people around her. She has my card, and the link to this blog, and I imagine some challenging days ahead of her as she re-evaluates what she used to believe.
Sometimes I wish that BTSS was moving faster, making a bigger change, ending the universally damaging system of patriarchy and rape culture overnight. But I am enough of a student of history, and just enough of a realist, to understand that’s not how lasting, true social change happens. It’s the relentless persistence of one conversation, and then another, of one heart being opened, and then another, that eventually moves mountains.
One of the most amazing things about the survivor’s statement is the final paragraph which I quote here. She writes to girls, but I would remind us all that men and boys are victims as well…
And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats dos ave; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.
Her courage, and her solidarity to stand with all survivors, is what BTSS is about. And yes, this work is agonizingly slow at times, but it is the only way, to stand with my feet firmly on the ground, trusting in the hesed (unfailing love of G-d) that I cannot see, and saying:
“Yes you have, you have met a rape survivor, because I am one.
Yes you have, you have met a rape survivor,
now let’s do something together so no one else ever has to wear this button.
Yes, you have.”