It’s hard to imagine a more exacting message about rape and rape culture than that in the letter written by the woman at the center of the Stanford rape story, a young woman who was raped while unconscious by a young man named Brock Allen Turner. The letter she wrote and read to Turner, the Stanford student convicted of raping her behind a dumpster, detailed the hours leading up to the horrific assault and the days, weeks, and months that followed as she struggled through the physical, emotional, and mental aftermath. Her pain is palpable in every letter and word.
Yet there is also a strength that flows through the statement: in her focused anger (“On top of all this, he claimed that I orgasmed after one minute of digital penetration. The nurse said there had been abrasions, lacerations, and dirt in my genitalia. Was that before or after I came?”), her demand for the truth (“Assault is not an accident”) and her point-by-point take down of his defense statement by calling out excuses for the crime he committed against her (“Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.”).
Jessica Valenti called it “the most powerful statement on sexual assault” she’s ever seen. It’s a letter that speaks to millions and has been shared by millions. Far too many people can relate. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), each year in the United States approximately 237,868 people are victims of sexual assault.
In the letter, the young woman did not shy away from declaring how devastating it is to be made to feel responsible, in some way, for the brutal attack. Nor did she allow the defense team to get away with discrediting her, clouding her story with their “version” of events or diluting the viciousness of the crime against her.
“He was guilty the minute I woke up. No one can talk me out of the hurt he caused me.”
It’s the first sentence above that is an excruciating reminder of what consent does — and doesn’t — look like. An unconscious woman can’t consent to a sexual encounter. The now viral video about tea and consent drives this point home.
The experiences detailed in the letter are all too common for most women who have been sexually assaulted. Often, victims are not believed when they reveal they’ve been raped. They are told that they must have “encouraged” the attack by drinking too much, wearing a certain outfit, or sending “unclear” signals.
None of those are causes for rape. The only thing that “causes” rape is the person who commits the violent crime. As the young woman says to her assailant, about her choice to go the party where they met,
“Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gone, then this never would’ve happened. But then I realized, it would have happened, just to somebody else.”
There may be scientific reasons for why rape victims are not believed, related to the neurobiological effects of trauma and the ways in which these effects impact a victim’s ability to recall events as they were. But perhaps more importantly, there is “rape culture.”
Rape culture vilifies victims while downplaying the actions of the perpetrators. Rape culture trivializes or normalizes rape and sexual assault in popular media. Rape culture is revealed in former congressman Todd Akin’s statement that in a “legitimate rape” the body has a way to “to shut that whole thing down,” thus preventing pregnancy.
And rape culture allows for a Stanford student and star swimmer convicted of three counts of sexual assault to be given a sentence of six months by a judge who feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on his life.
Turner’s lenient sentence is another consequence of a culture that continues to dehumanize women who have been raped and tells women that our lives are not as important as a rapist’s life. It also contributes to rape being one of the most under-reported crimes — especially on college campuses, where, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 90 percent of sexual assault victims do not report the crime. It’s terrifying enough to report a rape to the authorities, but if a woman doesn’t believe that her attacker will be punished accordingly, it’s hard to feel that it’s worth the anguish.
Brock Turner’s father, in a letter after the sentencing, pleaded with the judge not to ruin his son’s life. He wrote that his son “has never been violent to anyone including on the night of January 17th, 2015.” That was the night his son assaulted the young woman. The father also wrote that prison was a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”
The light sentence and the letter from Turner’s father both sparked outrage online, with a petition to recall the judge. For the young woman, however, being raped on the night of January 17th, 2015 means she is more likely to be one of the 81 percent of female victims who report significant short or long-term impacts such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Still, even as many of us argue and reel with sadness and anger over her story, this young woman leaves us all with some hope:
“Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” she said. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”