Rape Culture On Display in a Few Stunning Sentences

By Katie Feifer

The father of convicted rapist Brock Turner (Stanford student, varsity swimmer, sweet, white face) stated the following in a letter to the court opposing his son’s six month sentence (more on that, later):

As his father, he knows that Brock has "never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th.” (Italics mine)

And what were those actions, exactly? According to rapist Brock Turner, in his statement to the court prior to sentencing,

“Being drunk I just couldn’t make the best decisions and neither could she….I stupidly thought it was okay for me to do what everyone around me was doing, which was drinking. I was wrong…. I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.”

Here are the facts of the case, as summarized by the district attorney in a press release expressing the horror of the sentence:

“After midnight, on January 18, 2015, Turner was seen by two witnesses sexually assaulting the unconscious victim, who was laying on the ground behind a dumpster on Stanford campus. When they called out, Turner ran away. The two tackled him and held him until police officers arrived. Evidence showed that the victim was so heavily intoxicated that she did not regain consciousness until hours later.”

Brock Turner’s victim demolished his pathetic rationalizations for his behavior, and made an incredibly powerful statement about the impact his actions had on her, detailing the events of the night he raped her, and what followed. If you only click on one link today, make it her statement.

In case you can’t quite see the display of rape culture in Brock’s and his dad’s statements, allow me to shed some light.

Rape is inherently violent. The act of penetrating a person without consent constitutes violence. Brock was convicted of penetrating the victim while she was unconscious, behind a dumpster, after they left a party together. Brock’s dad, like too many of us, still believe that it’s not violent if…what? There’s no broken bones or weapon used? This belief is a big part of rape culture.

The victim did not make a “decision” or have a choice. To see equivalency in their actions, holding her at all responsible for his actions because ‘we were both drinking and didn’t make the best decisions’ is rape culture in action. And it’s much, much worse that these words convey, when you consider that his attorneys went for a tactic that works surprisingly well in cases where the victim was unconscious while she was raped. In her words:

"I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn't remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me."

 Relatedly, Brock seems to feel that his real crime was getting drunk. “I stupidly thought it was okay for me to do what everyone around me was doing, which was drinking. I was wrong.” I’ll let the victim school us about the fallacy of this belief.

“Again, you were not wrong for drinking. Everyone around you was not sexually assaulting me. You were wrong for doing what nobody else was doing, which was pushing your erect dick in your pants against my naked, defenseless body concealed in a dark area, … Peeling off and discarding my underwear like a candy wrapper to insert your finger into my body, is where you went wrong. Why am I still explaining this.”

 Brock’s statement that he’s starting a program to raise awareness about the dangers of the “campus drinking culture and sexual promiscuity that goes along with that” would be surreal if it didn’t reflect what many in our culture believe: If the victim hadn’t been drinking and wasn’t so ‘promiscuous,’ he wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.  The victim addressed this absurdity best in her statement.

"You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less."

There’s more. Judge Aaron Persky - running unopposed for re-election this year -  rejected the prosecution’s recommendation of a six year sentence for Brock Turner. Instead, the judge sentenced Brock to six months, which means he’ll be out of prison in a few weeks. His reasoning? He agrees with Brock’s father that it would be awful to make Brock feel bad. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him … I think he will not be a danger to others.”

How the judge can know that Brock will not be a danger to others is beyond me. The only way you can judge that he will not be a danger to others is to believe that raping someone is not a dangerous, violent act. Because if sad, depressed Brock drinks too much in the future, around women, it’s entirely possible that his future will look like his past.

And that’s it in a nutshell.

To review the clear evidence of rape culture: rape isn’t violent, because no bones were broken nor were copious amounts of blood spilled. The rapist was only guilty of drinking too much, and his victim is equally (or more?) responsible for his attack on her because she’d been drinking too. (Never mind the fact that she was unconscious when he attacked her.) And God forbid we should punish Brock for his actions or “ruin” his life because, as one reporter noted, “…the ex-swimmer has a record of real accomplishment.”

On the other hand. In all this horror it is important to recognize that very many people behaved well, and by all that I can see, carry the kinds of values we would like to see in a culture that is not a rape culture.

The two Swedish men on bicycles who intervened, stopping the ongoing assault, tackled the rapist and held him for authorities.

By the victim’s account, several hospital personnel were kind to her.

Law enforcement treated her well, and didn’t judge her negatively.

The victim was provided with advocates, who advocated for her and supported her.

And this victim had family members who believed her and stood by her, supporting her in the best possible ways, including provision of chocolate at important moments.

Her boyfriend didn’t accuse her of being a slut. He didn’t abandon her. On the contrary, he, too supports her.

Even her employer appears to be understanding enough to be patient with all the time off she needed to deal with healing and the legal proceedings.

This is what all victims deserve, and too few get.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Affirmative Consent: It's Happening, So Get on Board

Jaclyn Friedman has written a brilliant piece in the Washington Post, explaining (again) the beauty of affirmative consent as a model and a practice for behavior, and as policy when considering sexual assault cases.

The idea is simple: In matters of sex, silence or indifference aren’t consent. Only a freely given “yes” counts. And if you can’t tell, you have to ask.

One of the many points Jaclyn raises is that while some older people are all up in arms about the idea of affirmative consent, many young people get it, like it, and in fact are quite relieved to see it becoming the norm.

Why? A couple quotations from Jaclyn's article helps to spell it out. But really, the best thing for you to do is just read the whole article.

By emphasizing that you can’t make assumptions about what a sex partner might want, Yes Means Yes reminds everyone that there is no universal “right” answer to what any of us should want to do in bed. Instead, practicing affirmative consent encourages young people to get to know their own needs and desires and boundaries.
...affirmative consent is, in reality, a gender-free standard: It tells young men that their needs and desires and boundaries matter, too, and that it’s just as important when someone violates them as it would be if they were a woman. And it teaches people of all genders that it’s easy to make sure you’re not hurting anyone during sex: Just show up and pay attention to your partner; listen to what they’re telling you; and if you can’t tell, you have to ask. That’s especially helpful for young men, many of whom are worried that they’ll accidentally violate their sex partners, somehow, just by way of being male.
Of course, asking isn’t so simple when you’ve been raised in a culture that seems to say that talking about sex with your sex partner is some kind of a buzzkill. (It’s not, of course — if it were, phone sex wouldn’t be such a lucrative business.) That’s why the new affirmative consent laws are also a great opportunity to teach the kind of sexual communication that makes sex both better and safer for everyone.

And that's the bottom line to a large degree. Our culture, and the acculturation and socialization many of us who are over 40 and in positions of policy and law making lived through, told us that talking about sex is wrong, bad, and just not done. Sex is "supposed" to happen in the dark, with no real communication. The idea of affirmative consent shakes that belief to the core. And it's about time.



Campus Rape Victims Deserve Choice in Reporting

By Lauren Hersh. Lauren is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families

Originally published June 4, 2015 in Lohud.

Sara was out with friends when she ran into a male acquaintance from school. After a quick conversation, Sara had a drink with the young man. Shortly after, she began to feel dizzy and sick. The young man offered to take Sara to his apartment where she could rest until she felt well enough to go home. Sara then blacked out. When she came to, the young man was penetrating her.

In the days that followed, Sara cycled through an array of emotions. Fear filled her days. Self-blame and anxiety kept her awake at night, as she tried to recall the details of the attack. For months, Sara's friends urged her to report the incident. But Sara worried that if she told, she might ruin her attacker's future or worse, she might face retaliation.

On a cold day in the fall, Sara learned that she was not alone. Her attacker had committed a similar crime on another classmate. Sara could no longer remain silent and knew that reporting the incident was the only option.

For Sara and so many survivors, the process of reporting a sexual assault can be painful, complicated and fraught with mixed emotions. For some, the potential public scrutiny of a criminal proceeding may feel daunting and frightening. For others, reporting the assault to their university feels safer, more confidential and less out of control. In the days and months that follow a sexual assault, students need trauma informed assistance and victim-based advocacy. They need to be empowered to analyze the situation and decide how to best to heal and possibly seek justice.

For some, the answer is filing a police report. For others, filing an action with university is sufficient. And even others feel that counseling and time makes the most sense.

Across the country, survivors and students have criticized colleges for the way they have handled sexual assault cases. Victim blaming, delay in the process and ineffective investigation have been identified as commonplace in many university processes. To date, 94 universities are under Title IX investigation to determine whether the school has failed to adequately address the issue of sexual violence on their campus.

Some, like Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, suggest that the solution is simple – eliminate the university from the equation and report the incident directly to the police, with or without the victim's consent. As a former prosecutor, I support law enforcement involvement. But as a lawyer and advocate who works with sexual assault survivors, I recognize that police involvement is not appropriate for every case and victim.

Police involvement often results in invasive investigations and a process that can last for years. Lack of physical evidence, absence of force and prior relationship of any kind often yield unfavorable results in a criminal justice system where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Even when a case is successful, numerous hours of scrutiny on a witness stand can be traumatic for even the strongest, most credible witness.

The reality is that most of these cases are messy. Rampant rape culture and society's deep-rooted stigma "what should she have done differently" creates a hostile environment for anyone who is seeking the courage to come forward. Excessive alcohol often exists in many incidents. For some students, they are ambivalent to the consequences. They are simply looking to feel safe in their school again and possibly protect their peers.

Sara has spent the last year putting the pieces of her life back together. Sara is one of the few student survivors to report her rape. Studies estimate that only 5 percent of campus sexual assaults are reported.

Recently, Sara's university found her assailant responsible for Non Consensual Sex. His sanction is pending. Part of Sara's healing has been the process of reclaiming control – that includes deciding if, when, with whom and how she will share her truth. For Sara, a criminal conviction was not necessary for the outcome to be successful.

It's safe to say colleges are stumbling as they work to create fair and effective policies to respond to a nationwide sexual violence epidemic. To date, the processes are far from perfect and require drastic reform to eliminate impunity and protect victims. But shutting down the college reporting system and eliminating an avenue for a survivor to report may in fact, further decrease the meager number of cases reported. Providing critical support and empowering choice in how to proceed are necessary in the road to justice.

A Campus Rape Risk Reduction Program That “Works” Doesn’t Help Much

By Katie Feifer

Let’s not get too excited and happy about the good news.

A new study done by researchers on three Canadian campuses and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that providing first year students a robust program of “rape prevention”, including self defense tactics, understanding what constitutes consent and sexual assault, and strategies for staying safe on campus significantly reduced those women’s risk of being raped or sexually assaulted compared to a control group only given a brochure about sexual assault.

The New York Times was pleased to trumpet the good news in an article headlined “College Rape Prevention Proves a Rare Success.”  The opening line embellished the point: “A program that trained first-year female college students to avoid rape substantially lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted, a rare success against a problem that has been resistant to many prevention efforts...”

Why are we not so excited, and in fact cringing a little bit at this good news?

Because the study findings, and even more the news coverage of the results, once again put the onus on women to take steps not to get themselves raped. Again we have to remind everyone that the onus belongs on the small number of men who are offenders not to rape women, and on us as a society to stop perpetrators from perpetrating and hold them accountable when they do.

Those who take a course like this can lower their personal risk. Which is fine as far as it goes. That just means that the rapists will find other women to assault. It doesn’t address the cause of the problem, which is perpetrators' impunity to commit sexual violence crimes. As author and activist Jaclyn Friedman notes, quoted in Jessica Valenti’s excellent Guardian article,

Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they’re doing and who rape again and again - they’re just going to find another target”...Friedman, who also co-edited an anthology on ending rape with me in 2008, said: “So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn’t mean there’s less rape on campus ... This isn’t rape prevention, it’s rape protection.

The findings from the study are encouraging, to be sure. It’s not a bad thing to provide women some tools that can help keep them safe. But we’ll say it again: it’s not enough and it’s not where we need to focus to get to the roots of the problem.

And there are other studies (like one from Kentucky showing a 50% reduction in self-reported sexual violence perpetration in high schools) that occurs when other strategies are utilized. The Green Dot program focuses on bystander intervention to engage the whole community to stop perpetration – and reframe sexual violence as not normal.

Valenti summarizes well:

We need more than just one study and more than just one training to stop rape, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. Small, short-term solutions that work for some women are terrific and I hope we fund a lot of them. But what we need more are lasting solutions for all of us - solutions that don’t just change statistics, but the culture.

 

Let's Get a Few Things Straight About Sexual Assault on Campuses

By Katie Feifer

It's back to school time and at campuses across the country college students are getting "orientations" about sexual assault along with talks on alcohol and the computer systems. It seems that this year, more loudly than in the past, pundits and attorneys are weighing in about the "outrageousness" of the processes campuses are required to follow to pursue complaints of sexual assault. We find that many of these pieces are full of falsehoods and backwards thinking. It tends to make us feel that we're living in an Alice in Wonderland kind of world. One egregious example of getting it wrong appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently. Our friends at the Victim Rights Law Center responded with a letter to the editor, not published by WSJ.  We think it's worth hearing the response, so we're posting it here.

"Peter Berkowitz’s op-ed (“College Rape Accusations and the Presumption of Male Guilt,” Aug 20, 2011) is rife with misinformation. At the Victim Rights Law Center, a nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of rape and sexual assault victims; we have worked with hundreds of victims who are pursuing their education rights. We serve these victims every day and know all too well what happens in school disciplinary hearings.  We can assure Mr. Berkowitz that not only is there “no presumption of male guilt”, but rather the discrimination often runs in the exact opposite direction. Mr. Berkowitz cavalierly suggests that the hearings are biased against men, however, we have had fact-finders inquire about the preferred sexual positions of our victim-clients, their sexual orientations, their manner of dress and “could [she] demonstrate how [she] danced that night?” As if any of this is relevant to whether a victim was raped.  Of course, similar questions are never leveled at the accused.

Mr. Berkowitz is also terribly confused about the definition of due process. Under the law, due process is the right to notice and a fair hearing. Nothing less and nothing more. The April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter in no way diminishes or encourages schools to diminish the due process rights afforded to both parties. It is simply wrong to suggest otherwise. 

Ironically, it is Mr. Berkowitz who criticizes a process that helps ensure due process – the right to an appeal.  Education cases are governed by civil, not criminal, law. In any civil case, both parties have equal rights to pursue an appeal. The double jeopardy clause applies only to criminal prosecutions and the Dear Colleague letter does not pertain to criminal cases. If Mr. Berkowitz were familiar with how campus cases are routinely handled, he would know that many campuses and universities allow only the defendant – and not the complainant – to appeal the outcome. Some schools do not even inform the victim that an appeal has been filed or new “evidence” submitted, thereby denying the victim any opportunity to respond. 

As to whether the “accused should be able to question or cross-examine the accuser,” Mr. Berkowitz misses the mark by one important word – “directly.” The “Dear Colleague” letter strongly discourages schools from allowing the defendant to question or cross-examine the complainant directly. It in no way suggests that the defendant be prohibited from questioning the complainant. Rather, it recommends that questions be addressed to a neutral third party, so as to eliminate the potential for harassing or intimidating behavior.

Finally, Mr. Berkowitz once again confuses the civil and criminal laws when he criticizes the burden of proof required. Civil matters routinely require a “preponderance” showing, in contrast to the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Schools cannot hold a rapist or sex offender criminally liable for his acts. They do not incarcerate defendants, impose jail or prison time, or otherwise inhibit a defendant’s fundamental rights. 

Mr. Berkowitz complains that the preponderance standard allows the campus disciplinary board to become “judge and jury.” This is a routine practice in administrative proceedings throughout the United States. There are hearings everyday in state and federal agencies conducted in this manner with as high stakes. Are the standards and procedures employed in hearings that address legal issues such as the right safe housing, retirement benefits, or keeping ones job not good enough for college and university academic disciplinary hearing? We think they are. 

As victim attorneys, we do not ask that everyone agree with our perspective, deliver victim-centered services or put victims first. We do not ask that colleges and universities favor one party over the other. What we demand is fairness. We demand that both parties be allowed their due process – and rather than mask irrelevant and degrading questions about sexual positions, sexual orientation and the color of the victim’s underwear – we demand that campuses and universities provide balanced and equitable responses to both parties. In other words, we expect them to follow the law.

Sincerely,

Stacy Malone, Esq., Executive Director, and the attorneys of the Victim Rights Law Center- Boston, MA and Portland, OR"

Though Notre Dame Would LIke Us To, We Haven't Forgotten Their Shameful Response to Lizzy Seeberg

By Katie Feifer

On December 1, we wrote about the tragedy of Lizzy Seeerg, a college freshman who accused a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her. Days after making her prompt, thorough report and cooperating with authorities, she died. Notre Dame and the local police did next to nothing to investigate. Notre Dame, in particular, showed great insensitivity and disregard for the young woman's charges, failing even to bench the football player while they looked into the charges against him. Much was written on this case, by us and others. Today, five months after Lizzy Seeberg was traumatized by the Notre Dame football player's assault, CounterQuo member Roger Canaff updates us on the case and reminds us to continue to advocate for women like Lizzy, calling universities like Notre Dame to make their actions live up to the promises they make on paper and the values they claim to endorse.

Why We Do What We Do

By Katie Feifer

We advocate. We prosecute. We litigate. We write and lobby for legislation and policy change. We teach and preach, we write and write and talk and talk and talk and keep at it because the cost of not doing so, is people's lives.

The recent suicide of St. Mary's College student Lizzy Seeberg 10 days after she reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player has touched and angered many. We are touched - and heartbroken - because a 19 year old young woman apparently felt so much pain and had so little hope for moving past the horrific pain that she chose to end her life. And we are angered because Notre Dame and local law enforcement agencies were and are callous and cruel and unconscionably wrong-headed in how they responded (actually, how they didn't respond) to Lizzy's allegations.

Two CounterQuo members, Roger Canaff and Jaclyn Friedman, have each written about this case. Jaclyn takes aim at yet another example of our rape culture at work: "the structure of decisions, actions and inactions that protects a football player from even being investigated on a credible allegation." Roger, in a moving "Letter from a Prosecutor to a Young Woman" posted on his blog and at Jezebel, grapples with the ignorance and insensitivity that allows a Catholic university to place greater importance on keeping a football player accused of a heinous crime on the field and stonewalling investigation than taking seriously the word of a young woman who "did everything that could possibly have been asked of you."

We will continue to write and talk and advocate and litigate to change our rape culture and make our world safer from sexual violence. Please add your voice to ours. Talk, write, re-post, share... until we don't need to anymore.

Giving "Ask Amy" a Little Advice When it Comes to Rape

By Katie Feifer

Amy Dickinson, a nationally syndicated advice columnist wrote on November 27, 2009 responding to a request for advice from “Victim in Virginia,” a young female trying to determine whether she had been raped at a fraternity party. We were deeply dismayed by Ms. Dickinson’s response.

Ms. Dickinson displays an all-too-common ignorance of the dynamics of non-stranger sexual assault, the law and the appropriate ways to advise a survivor of such violence. Because such misperceptions have an effect not only on victims but also on public safety, and because Ms. Dickinson’s widely heard voice is an important one, we are compelled to make several key points.

Ms. Dickinson’s apparent disdain for the judgment of the advice seeker (“Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment”) is as painful a display of victim blaming as we have seen in some time.  The first response to this clearly struggling young woman should have been one of empathy, not shame or blame. Even if consuming alcohol, agreeing to spend time alone with a peer, or attending a fraternity party are indicators of “bad judgment,” rape is not a justifiable consequence. Neither do these choices justify shifting responsibility for this crime from the assailant to the victim.  Insinuating otherwise is not only punishing the young woman who is at the center of this case but is problematic from a public education standpoint.

Despite the fact that the advice seeker clearly indicated that she said “no” and was coerced by the alleged perpetrator, Dickinson suggests that what was by legal standards a rape may have in fact been merely a misunderstanding fueled by alcohol consumption. In suggesting that the consumption of alcohol is a great neutralizer, one that morally equates the sexual violence victim and the perpetrator, Dickinson ignores current law and decades of rape education efforts. She also ignores this fundamental truth: alcohol lowers inhibitions that might otherwise prevent behavior that is nevertheless consistent with the desire of the inebriated person (in this case, that of the alleged perpetrator). It does not unleash a heretofore non-existent urge to violate a resisting woman who has protested her attacker’s advances.

Dickinson’s imprecise use of language is equally troubling. She conflates “unwise” sexual conduct with “unwanted” sexual conduct, implying that a victim might choose (because of her attendance at a party and the voluntary consumption of alcohol) to “engage” in either or both. In fact, one does not “engage” in unwanted sexual conduct anymore than one “engages” in being robbed at knife point. Describing sexual violence as a contract negotiation gone wrong sends the wrong message to victims and the broader community, fueling social attitudes that make the world less safe and less just. Indeed, when over 80% of the rapes committed in the United States involve people who know each other – and many of those rapes involve alcohol – the symbolic and practical impact of Ms. Dickinson’s ill-considered advice is potentially quite large.

Most troubling to us was Ms. Dickinson’s assertion that the alleged rapist should be involved in discussions with his victim “in order to determine what happened.” One problematic aspect of this particular piece of advice is the presumption that this young woman cannot know what happened to her – only the accused perpetrator can tell her. From a legal standpoint, such advice is ill conceived and irresponsible: one does not direct the victim of a crime to confront the perpetrator of that crime after the fact, and on her own time.  This is what the legal system is for. From an ethical standpoint, advising a victim to reach out to her alleged perpetrator is cruel, unreasonable, and likely to be traumatic (as well as ineffective). It is also, for the victim, potentially unsafe.

There is a wealth of important information available on rape and sexual abuse — information that we hope might inform future “Ask Amy” columns. Indeed the most helpful and accurate aspect of Ms. Dickinson’s answer was the information that she included from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Now we encourage her to learn more. The website of one of our Chicago-based CounterQuo partners, The Voices and Faces Project (www.voicesandfaces.org), includes the names, faces, and stories of women and girls who have lived through rape and abuse.  Information about the legal response to rape and sexual assault is available from the Victim Rights Law Center (www.victimrights.org). We hope that after reading the testimony of victims with experiences not unlike the “Victim in Virginia,” Ms. Dickinson will be less likely to blame those who have lived through sexual violence for the damage that has been done to them.