As the Stanford rapist’s six-month sentence in county jail made the headlines and the social media circuit, I was taken back by the outrage of my friends and family. I saw post after post on Facebook about why six months is a travesty (it is), how the judge should lose his job (he should), and how brave the victim was to use her voice in court (she was so incredibly brave). I couldn’t help but notice that I had a different reaction. My first reaction, after sitting speechless in awe of the survivor’s poignant letter to the court, was to wonder why everyone was so surprised. My honest first reaction wasn’t, “Oh my goodness, that sentence is too short.” It was, “Oh my goodness, a rapist was actually sentenced to time in jail.”
I’m proud of my friends for taking notice. I want to support and encourage them to join the movement, change the system, and bring attention to an issue that has long been shrouded in silence and victim blaming. I struggle with how to do that. Do I jump on-board and reiterate the outrage that such a heinous crime would receive so little punishment? Or do I tell my friends that less than 2 percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail? Do I sign the petition and call for a recall of the judge? Or do I tell my friends that the judge accepted the recommendation of the probation department? This isn’t one rogue judge. This isn’t an outlier. This is evidence of an entire criminal justice system that not only minimizes crimes against women, but in many cases supports, justifies, and condones them.
Next to the headlines about the Stanford case, I saw the headlines about Baylor. I read the reports and the apologies. I even read the comments (P.S. Don’t ever read the comments.). Again, I was taken back by the shock and outrage. Both are justified, of course. But, am I so jaded that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that a university would systematically cover up, defend, and retaliate against victims of sexual assault?
Apparently I am.
I was not shocked to read the apology from the coach that focused not on how his own actions and the actions of his colleagues would have life-long impact on dozens of young women, but rather on how this impacts his own future, how the investigator was biased, or how he hopes the truth will come out in time. I wonder how many of the victims he helped to re-traumatize believed the same about their own futures, their own investigations, and their own desire to see the truth told.
Among the outrage about the high profile cases, I saw a PSA from the local police about a serial rapist or rapists targeting women in my own backyard. The ad described how victims have been attacked drinking water on the running trail in broad daylight, carrying groceries to their apartment with both hands, and pushing their babies in a stroller. I heard the plea for the ladies of Austin to be more vigilant.
Do we honestly believe vigilance is the answer? I get it. I shouldn’t go out and drink alcohol, ever. I shouldn’t take an Uber or a taxi. I shouldn’t walk alone at night or, apparently, during the day, or with my baby, or get a drink of water on a hot summer day, or carry my groceries with both hands. I definitely need to throw away my earbuds.
Maybe the message is that I should always go out in public with someone that I know. But here’s the thing: I’m far more likely to be raped by someone that I know than by a stranger in the bushes. Where was that part of the PSA? In the list of things women were doing when they were raped, I didn’t hear about the thousands of victims who were in their own homes or with their own friends and were raped by someone they knew and trusted. Nor did I hear mention of (and this seems kind of important) what men can do to stop raping.
Where is that PSA?
I know the ads are well-intentioned. But women carrying their groceries and drinking from a water fountain are not the problem. The problem is a criminal justice system—in fact, an entire culture—that teaches men that they are entitled to women’s bodies and then does nothing when men are violent towards women. The problem is a system that puts the victim on trial instead of the rapist. The problem is a culture that gives credence to the idea that rape is really just a byproduct of binge drinking or women not paying enough attention.
Believe me when I tell you that women are vigilant. We think about rape and the possibility of rape every time we see a man walking towards us on the street. We think about it every time someone offers to buy us a drink at the bar or takes us on a date. We can be as vigilant as humanly possible, and it still won’t stop rape.
You see, only rapists can stop rape.
Until we are willing to stop focusing on victims’ behavior and start holding perpetrators accountable, the rapes will continue and so will the headlines. There’s a saying in the movement: if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. I’m glad more folks are paying attention. Now what are we willing to do about it?
I’d suggest that the next sexual assault PSA be again directed at women, but this time with the words of the survivor from the Stanford case:
“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 every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you….I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced…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.”
To the prosecutor that took on this case that was not a sure win: Thank you.
To that survivor: We are with you. We believe you. You are so important and have just changed—and saved—countless lives. Thank you for making us pay attention.