Rape Culture Has Friends in High Places

It seems nearly impossible to know definitively how often rape occurs in the United States – partly because so many different reporting agencies have different criteria for what “rape” means, but perhaps even more than that it is because so many rapes – possibly as many as 70 percent of the rapes that occur – are never reported to police.

Why are so many rapes left unreported? There are so many reasons; here are a few.

  • Some rape is part of systemic exploitation, as part of what is all-too-generously called the sex trade. Nobody reports it, because it is part of business, almost expected.
  • Some rape is part of systemic oppression, a part of ongoing, violently abusive relationships, and the person raped fears further physical or emotional injury. Nobody reports it because it may be too dangerous.
  • Some rape is never reported because of an official, institutional unwillingness to address it – or even to acknowledge it. Live-in school, residential institution, prison rape all may fall under this category.
  • Some rape is not recognized, because the person raped may be drugged or intoxicated and may not be fully aware of their circumstances. Nobody reports it because it the person raped has a compromised recollection of having been raped, the witnesses may all have participated (or may be intimidated into silence), and officials are often unwilling to take the word of a compromised victim.
  • Some rape is not acknowledged, because the person raped is underage and is manipulated into the participating in situation. Nobody reports it because, even though it is illegal, even though it is exploitative, both parties are participating.
  • And many raped individuals simply do not believe that reporting an incident will do much, if anything – because of a long history of stories like the one that draws into a quiet Stanford University campus scene in January 2015 a Stanford swimmer, two other Stanford students (both Swedish, both on bicycles), and the extraordinary Emily Doe (not a student, attending a Stanford fraternity party with her younger sister, a Stanford student).

Doe and the swimmer, Brock Allen Turner, had both been at the same fraternity party. Doe and Turner had both been drinking. They may have had some interaction on the dance floor. According to various accounts and court testimony, Doe drank too quickly and wound up outside, unconscious on the ground, near a large trash container. Turner, according to various accounts and court testimony, wound up on top of Doe, sexually assaulting her with his fingers. [Please see Note 1 below] Two Swedish students, bicycling past, saw the scene and called out, which startled Turner away. The Swedes chased Turner, tackled him, and held him until police arrived.

In the Panglosian best-of-all-possible worlds, this would be an easy case for the prosecutor: Lone male sexually assaults unconscious woman in public, is startled by two witnesses who chase him down and hold him for police (clear chain of evidence), a hospital notes clear evidence of sexual assault in its examination – and even a DNA match connecting assailant and victim.

And in fact, Turner, a one-time Olympic hopeful from Ohio was convicted in March 2016 of three felonies – assault to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. At one point, Turner faced the possibility of 14 years in state prison, with the prosecutor asking Judge Aaron Persky to imprison Turner for a little less than half of that. Pretty straight forward.

What could possibly go wrong in the Palo Alto, Calif., courtroom where this was all being adjudicated?

Well, probation officials could urge the elected judge to ignore the prosecutor’s call for six years of hard time in the state prison – and they could recommend half a year at the county lockup, instead.

And the judge – who, before 2002, prosecuted sex crimes – could take probation’s recommendation, enter a parallel universe in which the perpetrator is seen as a potential victim (if placed in prison), and the sexually assaulted person is … entirely missing in the assessment. The judge could then everyone at tell the sentencing session: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner] … I think he will not be a danger to others.”

In brief, the probation department and the judge – both commissioned to measure out justice – seem to have acted almost exclusively to protect the perpetrator – a man convicted of three violent sexually oriented crimes against a woman – and in the process, they seem to have disregard the injuries to the woman who (it was proven, by the man’s conviction) was sexually assaulted.

On sentencing day in Santa Clara Superior Court, a column appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, written by Scott Herhold – a seasoned news editor with a long career at the Mercury News. Herhold, too, finds some tenderness and kindness for Turner that he does not seem to be able to muster for Doe. He, too, recommends that Turner’s incarceration be limited to six months in the softer county lockup.

“Because of a long history of ignoring sexual assaults on campuses, particularly by athletes, we have become more vigilant about prosecuting them,” writes Herhold. “And that is commendable.

“But there is a temptation to see the Turner case as a chance to send a message, rather than to weigh all the messy human elements involved. Judge Persky should find, in legal terms, that there are ‘unusual circumstances’ here and give Turner a county jail term. His conviction stands as warning enough. We don’t need the last pound of flesh.”

Then … we should crack down on student athletes who assault women – but we shouldn’t go too far? We don’t need “the last pound of flesh?” Our vigilance seems tempered.

In the end, Judge Persky did, in fact, assign Turner to the state lockup for half a year, just as probation had recommended, along with probation. With good time, he can expect to be out in three months – a little less than the length of a typical college semester.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen told the Mercury News Turner should have been sent to prison, not jail. “The punishment does not fit the crime.”

In the realm of “lasts,” I have chosen to give Emily Doe a “last”: the last word. She delivered an in-court statement on Turner’s sentencing day, and she directed most of it straight at him, calling Turner out on many of the statements his attorney had made on his behalf in the closing statement. I link to it here.

But I will also crib an excerpt here. I have chosen two passages: one about powerlessness, one about power reclaimed.

“When I was told to be prepared in case we didn’t win, I said, I can’t prepare for that. He was guilty the minute I woke up. No one can talk me out of the hurt he caused me. Worst of all, I was warned, because he now knows you don’t remember, he is going to get to write the script. He can say whatever he wants and no one can contest it. I had no power, I had no voice, I was defenseless. My memory loss would be used against me. My testimony was weak, was incomplete, and I was made to believe that perhaps, I am not enough to win this. That’s so damaging. His attorney constantly reminded the jury, the only one we can believe is Brock, because she doesn’t remember. That helplessness was traumatizing.”

“The point is, this is everything my family and I endured during the trial. This is everything I had to sit through silently, taking it, while he shaped the evening. It is enough to be suffering. It is another thing to have someone ruthlessly working to diminish the gravity and validity of this suffering. But in the end, his unsupported statements and his attorney’s twisted logic fooled no one. The truth won, the truth spoke for itself.”


I mentioned above that it is nearly impossible to establish how often rape occurs in the U.S. If you are an average American adult reader, you have just spend about 5.6 minutes reading this post to this point – about 320 seconds.

In that time, according to the following sources, the following events may have taken place:

  • According to the FBI, one rape may have occurred.
  • According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 3 sexual assaults may have occurred in the U.S.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a dozen sexually oriented assaults or incidents may have taken place.

As I mentioned above, perhaps 70 percent of these incidents – even the most violent and serious ones – will probably never be reported.

What I didn’t mention is that of all the incidents that occur – the reported and the unreported – there will be convictions in about 3 percent.

100 incidents, 3 convictions.

If you weren’t already aware of “frustration and a feeling of powerlessness” being one reason these events are not reported, perhaps now, after getting a brief sense of Emily Doe’s experience and these statistics, you can understand more why some people simply don’t bother.


Note 1: Here, I might use the phrase “raping her” if I had more editorial freedom – plenty of people would, and some might insist that I should – but the crimes Brock Allen Turner has been convicted of are forms of sexual assault, and are not technically called “rape.” That’s not my choice; it may be a technical or legal distinction, but as a former police reporter and a former copy editor, I am not comfortable adopting a generic phrase when the technical, legal phrase is available.


Sources are referenced during the post above, and are all included below.


















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