This week the internet was gripped with justifiable outrage over the conviction and sentencing of Brock Turner for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford University. The case has hit a nerve and with good reason.
The release of statements by Brock and his parents, Dan and Carleen, threw into sharp relief a problem at the heart of western society – that we are weighed down by an endemic rape culture, where, at its worst, expressions of suffering experienced by victims of assault and abuse are met with bemusement and incomprehension by perpetrators, the justice system and society itself.
Within such an environment, the Turners, while, clearly suffering from the aftershocks of the 18th January 2015, have acted as we might expect – with an inability to comprehend just why Brock’s actions that night were wrong.
On some level I empathise with them. It must be incredibly disorientating to live within a society that tells you women are objects to be claimed by men and that men, in order to have value to society, must prove their ability to claim what our culture states is theirs by right. Brock acted as he had been taught and society rewarded him with a court case, a criminal record, and a lifetime on a sex offenders register.
I would argue that it is not the case itself that has cause such outrage. It is the clear juxtaposition of the three statements that has fuelled the debate. The pain exuded from the victim compared to the complete lack of empathy and understanding on the part of everyone else involved. The victim, in her own statement, put it quite clearly. Brock does not understand. His parents do not understand. Judge Persky does not understand.
Yes, they are likely able to argue that rape is wrong and that assault of any kind is abhorrent. But the Turners are unable to link Brock’s actions with the moral and legal wrongdoing that we widely call assault. They are illustrative of a core belief system that identifies women as object but never subject. We are all indoctrinated into this belief system from the day we are born and, in this sense, we are all complicit in perpetuating the culture.
But what,exactly, does Brock not understand?
Well we might think of it this way.
Let’s imagine you get drunk one evening and, at some point , you decide to take a hammer to a strangers car. You get caught in the act. You try to run away because, even though you are drunk, you know you are doing something wrong. Later, you may feel some remorse, perhaps even a bit of shame that you did something illegal.
You were, rightly, chastised for the thing you did, possibly even receiving some jail time. You may feel, on some abstract level, that people were hurt or disappointed in you . You may also feel like a fool, for having engaged in some activity that is looked down upon. Perhaps your plans for the future have been irrevocably changed because society looks down on those with criminal records. Now you say you would like to learn from your mistakes. You will lecture people on the dangers of the demon drink. You will be a cautionary tale for anyone who would park their car in a public place.
However, did you ever stop to think about the car? Did you ever stop to think of the pain that the car felt while you were assaulting it with the hammer? Do you ever think about the pain the car might be feeling now?
Of course you didn’t. The car is an object. The car is a thing to be owned. Society praises men who’ve had lots of them. The car’s feelings don’t come in to it.
This is where the debate surrounding rape culture becomes highly problematic.
Brock’s actions were abhorrent and the sentencing pitiful. There is little disagreement there. But this case speaks to the idea that women are still not legitimised as subjective independent beings. That even when someone is convicted of assault, the narrative remains about how the event impacts on the perpetrator and not on the victim.
This case prompted many women to (rightly) share their personal experiences of living in a society that has so little respect for them they they are urged to keep quite about the trauma they suffered because when they do speak out very few want to listen.
I could speak of my own personal experiences here. As with virtually every woman I know – they are plentiful. However, when individual experiences are shared the counter-arguments typically go something like this:
“Anecdotal evidence is not enough. Your experience is not everyone’s experience.”
“Not All Men. Most men know right from wrong and don’t rape, assault or otherwise hassle women.”
“I love women, I respect them.”
Each of these arguments mis-interpret the main points at the heart of this debate and are indicative of the thinking that leads Brock Turner to not understand why he was convicted and why his actions were so wrong.
Yes, anecdotal evidence is not proof of the existence of rape culture, but when the voices are so numerous as to become white noise it is time to take the allegations seriously.
Further, it has never been an argument that all men rape. The argument has always been that rape, assault and harassment, when it occurs and however often it occurs, is treated by society with a degree of leniency that belies the reprehensiveness of the act. At its core, the argument has become a fight against a culture that allows us to believe that the concept of man and woman is binary rather than a spectrum. It is a struggle against a culture that considers women to be objects and never subjects.
And to say that you “love women and respect them” is no defence at all. To utter these words means that you don’t understand. To say that you love all women is to put women into a homogenous block. It is little different from saying “I love cars” or “iphones are brilliant aren’t they?”. Yes, the shape and size might vary from model to model but, in general, they are the same. To say, it’s not me because “I love women” or “I respect them” is to know women only at the level of object and to fundamentally fail at understanding women as subjective beings. There are women that I respect and women that I don’t. There are women whom I love, and others whom I don’t. This is normal. This is ok. However, regardless of my personal feelings towards any one woman, I understand that they exist independent of me, my desires and my needs. They do not form a homogenous mass of ‘other women’.
The same problem arises if you ask a man to imagine if it was their sister, daughter, mother or wife who had been assaulted. This is to ask the wrong question. This requests the person to think on the outrage they would feel if the woman they claim as ‘theirs’ was violated. This is only marginally different to the anger one might be asked to feel if someone set their house on fire.
The real question to ask is what if it were me?
No one would suggest that all men who get drunk or otherwise have it in them to rape, assault and harass women, but when we focus on the act we miss the point entirely. It is not about the acts, it is about the fundamental lack of empathy that prevents people like Brock Turner from understanding why assault is such a heinous crime.
Until Brock and his family can put themselves in the shoes of the victim and imagine their pain as their own, they will not understand.
One of the arguments for the importance of literature is that it makes us better human beings. It makes us think and develops our capacity for empathy. It also allows us to move from anecdotal experience to a clearer understanding of how we interact with each other.
It is unlikely that Brock Turner is a monster although it is clear he has no empathy for the object of his 20 minutes of action. It is likely that no one in his life gave him any cause to empathise with women or taught him how to do so.
As a swimmer, I can imagine that he knows the importance of regular exercise. So below is a reading list for Brock designed to exercise those empathetic muscles.
Please feel free to add to this list in the comments.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Asking for It – Louise O’Neill
A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Tess of The D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride
The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf
A Vindication of the Rights of Women – Mary Wollstonecraft
The Politics of Presence – Anne Phillips
Blogs and Articles:
Coffee At Midnight – https://carolineheldman.me/
Don’t Be Part of the Problem – http://dontbepartoftheproblem.tumblr.com/
London Review of Books – Interview with Prof. Mary Beard
The Hunting Ground
The Mask You Live In