During the last few days, the internet has been set ablaze with news of rapist Brock Turner’s light sentence. Instead of the 14 years he was supposed to receive for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, Turner only received 6 months in jail and three years of probation. The reality is that this case has sparked interest, disdain, and important conversation for a number of reasons. The survivor of Turner’s violence wrote an eloquent letter that she read aloud during the trial. Tuner’s father and friends have written quite ridiculous statements defending him. And the media demanded that his mugshots be released after the only available pictures were of him in a suit, a stark contrast to the ways in which people of color are portrayed in the media.
And while this interest, this disdain, and these conversations are all vital responses to this entire situation, the question I cannot get out of my mind is simple:
How many times must we be shocked before we shift the ways we discuss sexual violence within our society?
Four years ago, a young woman was raped by two of her classmates in Steubenville, Ohio. Both of the perpetrators were released within two years of serving time. One went on to rejoin the football team. We were shocked.
Earlier this year, rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, who used to work as a police officer, was convicted on 18 of 36 charges he faced. Holtzclaw abused his power as a police officer to look up women who had previous convictions, most often for minor drug-related offenses, and force them into sexual acts. We were shocked.
In 2013, rapist Jameis Winston, who plays football professionally, raped two fellow students. One of the survivors of his violence was driven out of her college town. Winston received no jail time, continuing playing football, and was eventually drafted into the NFL. We were shocked.
Although I can keep listing cases like this, both widely publicized and those that have not widely been heard of, the pattern seems to be obvious. Nearly yearly, there is a major, highly publicized case involving sexual violence. And each time, our society is shocked. Shocked that we allow this to happen, shocked that our responses have not improved.
As a young woman who has graduated college, the sad reality is that I am not shocked anymore.
I spent four years in college where I heard friend after friend, acquaintance after acquaintance, and classmate after classmate tell me stories of people they met at parties, at bars, on dates, and more who forced them into sexual acts they did not want. And while I am still angry, still sad, and still tired, I am simply not shocked anymore.
Sexual violence is not simply a sensational story you see of Facebook. It is a reality for huge numbers of women, men, trans folks, gender non-binary individuals, and children. We must demand more. We must use the case of Brock Turner not just as an outlet for outrage, but as an opportunity to discuss rape culture, affirmative consent, and how we can help friends, family, and others who have experienced such violence with the people we love. We must start providing comprehensive sex education to our children that includes lessons on sexual violence and consent. We must stop being shocked when we all know that our society remains complacent in allowing for these instances of violence to occur.
This year, as a first year law student, I expressed to a professor my desire to work in policy related to better addressing gender-based violence. His response was, “I don’t think sexual assault is really that big of a deal anymore.” And I wasn’t shocked.