Brock Turner will spend less than six months in prison for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Perhaps only three.
It’s an absurdly small amount of jail time for a horrific crime, one that has provoked outrage nationwide. But his sentence, while offensively short, is a sentence nonetheless. Sentence and conviction are two words rape survivors almost never get to hear. In fact, most never see their rapist arrested or even brought to trial.
The Stanford victim knew this. Peppered throughout her eloquent court statement in which she directly confronted her rapist are mentions of the women she knows will never get to do the same.
“I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced,” she said. “A small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere.”
In the anger that’s followed Turner’s sentence, the larger meaning of the Stanford victim’s words seems to be getting lost. The punishment does not fit the crime her assailant committed. But in the world of sexual assault, they rarely do.
In this world, Turner hasn’t gotten off easy, he’s drawn the short straw. He’s the unlucky one.
The 20-year-old will soon be a registered sex offender, meaning he will face a lifetime of prohibited areas, stigma, and shame. His swimming career is over, his identity irrevocably sullied. His life may not be ruined, but it is—as his father put it—“deeply altered.”
Owing to a criminal justice system that can’t quite get a grasp on the meaning of “consent,” stories like this one are the exception. For one, as many have written, because there were two witnesses. For another, as fewer have, rape is an absurdly under-prosecuted crime.
His punishment isn’t like others not because it’s short, but because he has one. The bitter truth is that rapists—most of them—don’t go to prison. In fact, according to the nonprofit RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 97 percent of rapists face no punishment at all.
Rapists don’t get arrested, sent to trial, put on a sex offenders list. Their lives are not uprooted; their careers are not destroyed. Rapists names rarely appear in headlines; their pictures don’t become memes. Their faces remain in the minds of those they assaulted only. To the rest, they’re invisible—and, given that most rapists do it more than once, dangerous.
RAINN has been tracking sexual crimes in the U.S. since the mid 90s. According to its research, just 334 of every 1000 rapes are reported. Sixty-three of those will lead to arrest, 13 to a trial, seven will end in prosecutions, and—if lucky—six assailants will be sent to jail. That means out of 1000 perpetrators of rape, 994 will walk free.
In a deeply reported 2014 paper published titled How to Lie with Rape Statistics, Corey Rayburn Yung unpacked the police’s de-prioritization of rape, which she blames on the pressure they receive to reduce crime, specifically rape. But by only pursuing cases that they consider “severe,” she argues that they are actually making it easier for the behavior to continue.
“Serial rapists are actually the norm and not the exception. Some research indicates that 91% to 95% of rapes are part of a series by the perpetrator,” she writes. “Given the low levels of conviction for rape, high pre-arrest recidivism should not be surprisingly—rapists feel little threat from law enforcement and can be emboldened by their ‘success’ in raping with impunity.”
The Stanford victim experienced this first hand—and wanted to share it.
“The probation officer’s recommendation of a year or less in county jail is a soft timeout, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, an insult to me and all women,” she said. “It gives the message that a stranger can be inside you without proper consent and he will receive less than what has been defined as the minimum sentence.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigations calls rape the most “underreported violent crime in America,” affecting as many as one in six women nationwide. The reason for this is no mystery—rape victims are guilty until proven innocent. Reporting a rape means proving something was done to you, instead of by you; that what happened wasn’t your fault.
The Stanford victim successfully convinced the police—and the jury, all 12 of whom found Turner guilty. Perhaps if the outrage is redirected to how rarely this is the outcome in rape cases, progress may actually be achieved.
“Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” the Stanford victim said. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”