Thursday 29 September 2016

It's not just women who have a problem with rape

Liz Kearney

Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30

Brock Turner, right, makes his way into the Santa Clara Superior Courthouse in Palo Alto, Califiornia Photo: Dan Honda/AP
Brock Turner, right, makes his way into the Santa Clara Superior Courthouse in Palo Alto, Califiornia Photo: Dan Honda/AP

Thanks to the searing eloquence of the unnamed victim in the now notorious Stanford rape case, this weekend many of us are a tiny bit closer to understanding the devastating, long-lasting effects of sexual assault.

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The anonymous woman, who delivered a 12-page victim impact statement to a Californian courtoom in the wake of her assailant's conviction, had been found unconscious behind a dumpster truck after being attacked by college swimming star Brock Turner.

The assault lasted 20 minutes, but its repercussions will last a lifetime.

Nevertheless, the 23-year-old was brave enough to take to the stand and deliver an extraordinary address which gave listeners a startling insight into how it feels to be violated when you're too defenceless to make it stop.

"My damage was internal, unseen," she said. "I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice."

Her powerful statement stood in marked contrast to the letter submitted to the court by Brock's father, Dan Turner, who pleaded for leniency for the 20-year-old. Dan lamented that his once fun-loving son no longer enjoyed life, had lost his keen appetite for eating steak, and was now consumed with anxiety, poor thing.

Brock's life, Dan insisted, should not be ruined by "20 minutes of action" and instead of going to jail, his time would be better spent educating his peers about consent and the perils of drinking too much.

This suggestion would be funny if it were not so wrongheaded: Brock is a young man who deliberately targeted his victim because she was incapacitated, ran away when he was caught, and then argued that sex with his unconscious victim was consensual. It would be hard to find a candidate less equipped to enlighten anyone about consent.

The outrage that ensued was justified: we are right to demand Brock be jailed for longer than six months, we are right to urge judges to do more to ensure that the sentence matches the crime, and we are right to pillory Dan Turner for his selfishness in seeing only his son's suffering rather than that of the victim.

But worldwide, reaction to the case soon turned to the theme of modern rape culture, as if rape didn't exist before Robin Thicke wrote 'Blurred Lines', rather than being an evil as old as mankind. And because you can't talk about rape culture without talking about everyday sexism, soon we were being asked to join the dots between a whole range of female experiences of supposed victimhood.

At one end of the spectrum, women went online to share shocking, sad stories of sexual abuse. At the other end of the spectrum, women went online to complain that they'd once been winked at, which would seem ludicrous until you remember that many supporters of the Everyday Sexism movement genuinely believe that there is a link between turning a blind eye to 'banter' and the scourge of sexual violence.

The movement's growing influence is encouraging well-educated, grown-up women to feel threatened or oppressed in even the most benign circumstances.

In Dublin this week, the VHI was under fire for its mini-marathon slogans, which lightheartedly encouraged women to 'run like they'd left the immersion on'. One 'Irish Times' writer complained of the institutionalised sexism she'd been subjected to when an Order of Malta marshall shouted: "Don't worry ladies, the hair still looks gorgeous!" She was baffled that her fellow racegoers weren't similarly horrified by his troglodyte (her term) behaviour.

I'm not suggesting that the writer likened her mini-marathon experience to anything as serious as sexual assault, but the overriding message that banter is inherently dangerous is becoming an increasingly acceptable notion.

And if you follow that logic to its natural conclusion, then you start to believe the fallacy that Brock Turner felt free to attack his victim because we live in a world where men make bad jokes at women's expense - not because he was a callous young man with no thought for anything but his own sexual gratification.

Rape is violence of the most abhorrent kind perpetrated against someone physically weaker than you, and a feature of just about every war in history. And it is not always directed against women. Just ask the young men raped in our own State institutions.

There was a startling scene in a recent episode of HBO's 'Girls' where Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, found herself having sex with her yoga teacher, an older woman. Growing increasingly uncomfortable during the encounter, Hannah eventually appealed for it to stop.

The yoga teacher, oblivious to her discomfort, roughly urged her on. Hannah's look of bemusement and unhappiness in the aftermath of the incident echoed the viewer's - was this sexual violence? Was it an assault? And if it was, how brave for the show's writers to show that women too are capable of sexual transgressions.

Tempting though it is, we should resist the urge to use cases like the Stanford rape to fuel the increasingly divisive gender wars. Hashtags like #toomanymen and #yesallwomen do nothing to liberate women from violence but simply fan the flames of battle.

If we characterise all men as either rapists, would-be rapists or men who aren't doing enough to stop other men raping women, we're making villains out of our friends, our sons, our brothers, our husbands, our fathers, our lovers.

When we insist that 'all' women are victims, we imply we're passive, inactive agents who are in perennial danger from the all-powerful enemy - men. That way, madness lies: in England this week, the organisers of the Glastonbury festival, that bastion of Bacchanalian carnival, revealed plans for women-only spaces at the event, announcing: "The producers of The Sisterhood believe that women-only spaces are necessary in a world that is still run by and designed to benefit mainly men." Well, the Taliban would surely be delighted. How ironic that the feminist movement is pushing women back into the 'safe spaces' of female-only areas.

We should be wise enough to see that the gulf is very wide: on the one hand, you've got the horror of the Brock Turner rape case. On the other, you've got the Pythonesque comedy of the mini-marathon. Any movement that suggests it can join the dots between the two is a very dangerous one indeed.

Irish Independent

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