Controversial verdict reveals a deeper problem in our society
By: Jaina Kelly
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know Brock Turner’s name. The past nine months of following the now infamous sexual assault case has been an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish, with shock, sadness, anger, and helplessness all playing into one of the most frustrating and public verdicts of 2016. How can a perpetrator of a witnessed rape (behind a dumpster, no less) who was indicted with five criminal charges, receive only six months in jail? Yes, Turner was put on the sex offender registry and placed on probation for three years; however, to put his sentence into contrast, being caught cultivating marijuana in Canada can put you into prison for up to fourteen years. Though it’s not entirely equal to pit the Canadian and American justice system against each other, they share the same problem: prisons are increasingly filled with non-violent drug offenders while violent sexual predators walk free.
In the Brock Turner case, the outcome was one of the harshest that rapists in our society will ever receive. The reality is that the majority of us who have experienced sexual assault will never receive justice.
The scandal follows our own nationwide outrage after Jian Ghomeshi walked free in March, following a trial that debilitated his victims and left the public disappointed. If you are like me, you may have spent time puzzling over how our crooked system can allow violent sexual aggressors to walk free. Why have our systems prioritized the prosecution of non-violent individuals while allowing convicted rapists to slip through the cracks?
Rape culture, a term coined by feminists in the 1970’s, aims to explain the cultural conditioning which sets forth our deeply entrenched lenience toward sexual assault. The cases of Brock Turner and Jian Ghomeshi are symptoms of our own rape culture. The term itself is defined best by Emilie Buchwald as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women”. This may seem outlandish and exaggerated, but it’s not. If you take a closer look at our social contracts, it becomes clear that victim-blaming is learned from a young age. School dress codes bar girls from exposing their bra straps or wearing shorts that fall too far above the knee. These dress codes have been regarded as ways to avoid the distraction of male students, and in some more publicized instances, of the male teachers. It is a sobering thought that a grown man may be unable to remove his gaze from the bare shoulder of an underage student. And yet, we have continued to maintain these attitudes, which excuse male sexual aggression as natural – rather than teaching boys to view women as equal counterparts, not simply bodies for sexual means.
Women are taught that it is our responsibility to contort and cover our bodies in order to remedy the hyper-sexualization that we are subjected to. The problem lies here: our society is full of double standards that linger from centuries of oppression of the female body. For example, if a man grabs us or leers at us, we are usually reprimanded as responsible for this – for wearing clothing that displays too much of our bodies.
In order to understand rape culture, we need to open our eyes to some uncomfortable realities. It’s hard for men to recognize the ways they might contribute, but it’s imperative in order for things to change. Part of changing the dialogue means standing up to others who choose to fuel sexual violence. Just last week, Western University made the news with a slogan written on the outside of a male dorm’s window that read: “No means yes, yes means anal.” Vice reported that the Glenn Mathews, the official who spoke to media about the incident, brushed it off, stating: “The message is really bad, but, students do dumb things.” Essentially, Glenn is using the classic excuse of “boys will be boys,” which reinforces stereotypes of toxic masculinity that suggest sexual violence is synonymous with manhood.
This “no means yes” rhetoric has been seen before. At Yale in 2014, a controversy ensued when frat boys chanted this same slogan; earlier that same year, students at St. Mary’s in Halifax sung “U is for underage, N is for no consent.”
These are comments just a drop in the ocean of sexually violent attitudes that our culture fosters. Every day, both women and men continue to suffer from the trauma of rape culture. Though the majority of adults who are sexually assaulted will be female, men are not immune. Even if men are not the small percent who will cope directly with sexual assault, every single man knows someone who has been affected – a daughter, a friend, a lover, a niece. Stats Canada reports that one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Feeling angry? There’s a silver lining to these stories. However gloomy the prospects may seem, change is possible. Rape culture is conditioning which needs to be unpacked and unlearned. The good news is that it can be done. It requires awareness, education, and the openness for us to better ourselves.
If you want to help kill a culture of sexual violence, you can start with these five things:
1) Don’t use rape as an adjective in casual conversations. It’s jarring and upsetting for survivors.
2) Speak to the women in your life about how you can personally support them – it is women who directly suffer the most from our culture of violence.
3) Ensure consent whenever engaging in sexual behaviour.
4) Familiarize yourself with themes of toxic masculinity, which contribute to sexual violence.
5) Listen. Listen to the stories of survivors. The more we connect in our communities, the more we heal.