TW: Sexual violence, rape
By Jae Bates
The following writing is in direct response to the Brock Turner conversation that was held on campus on the evening of September 28th.
The forum held on Brock Turner was one of the most upsetting and out of touch conversations about sexual assault that I have attended in my time at the University of Puget Sound. I want to preface this personal and emotional piece with the fact that I am a queer, transgender, invisibly disabled man of color and I am a survivor. This is not an exhaustive list of identities that are a part of me, but they are the ones that matter the most to my experience of sexual assault. How and when I was sexually assaulted and my abuser’s name does not matter as much as what made the perpetrator believe it was okay or what identities made me vulnerable to being sexually assaulted. The same way that Brock Turner’s name and picture should mean less to us than what brought him to believe that he was entitled to a woman’s body.
I do not want to recount my trauma for you in a blog post written for Wetlands. Instead I want to explain why the rhetoric used at the forum discussion was incredibly traumatic for me to listen to. The conversation reinforced the gender binary, heterosexuality, and the comments that were made about Brock Turner and the survivor were incredibly infantilizing and unnecessary. Ultimately, I left feeling as though my sexual assault does not matter or exist in the mind of our institution.
Let’s start with the reinforcement of the gender binary. If I had a nickel for every time someone in that room said the word “man” or “woman” I would really be able to pay the rest of my tuition. “Man” became synonymous with perpetrator and “woman” because synonymous with victim. The binary between evil man and helpless woman also reinforces the idea that men are not victims/survivors. The binary makes me feel invalid and unseen. That despite being a survivor of sexual violence, there is something inherent that makes me susceptible to being an abuser or perpetrator of sexual violence due to my gender.
The more obvious problem with this binary is that it completely excludes non-binary people from the conversation. Non-binary people can be abusers/perpetrators and they can also be victims/survivors. However, when we continue the rhetoric that sexual violence is a man/woman issue, we exempt non-binary people from being held accountable for their violence and we also erase non-binary people’s experiences with sexual violence. The man/woman binary also exempts women from being labeled as perpetrators or being viewed as equally responsible for the sexual violence that they commit and perpetuate. The moment during the forum that truly made my heart break was when a panelist said that men play a primary role in ending sexual violence and he added “and maybe women.” This rhetoric removes not only women’s agency but it completely glosses over the fact that women can be sexually predatory, and often ignore or do not understand sexual consent.
Furthermore, the binary reinforces the idea that all sexual violence is happening in a heterosexual context. The man/woman binary effectively makes sexual violence into a heterosexual “issue” (which it obviously is not). This erases LGBTQ students who have experienced sexual violence in same-gender relationships. However, LGBTQ youth experience sexual violence at disproportionate rates. Yet we are excluded from conversations about sexual violence which further silences LGBTQ youth in a culture that already shames and others their sexual and romantic relationships.
Additionally, focusing in on Brock Turner allows people to distance themselves. There is a concrete “rapist” in this conversation and therefore we are here to talk about “that rapist.” His father’s letter gives people the ability to formulate a concrete “reason” why Brock grew up to be a rapist. The focus on the judge and his poor sentencing, despite California sentencing laws, gives the crowd the ability to have a concrete moment when the justice system failed. These aspects of the conversation ultimately form Brock Turner into just that: just Brock. He becomes an isolated incident. I do admit that I left the event early because I was triggered, and that perhaps Brock Turner was explained as merely a symbol of a larger problem. Perhaps it was brought back and explained why this isn’t just Brock Turner but a whole culture.
Lastly, the heavy focus on Brock Turner also meant a heavy focus on the survivor. I took issue with the way that the survivor was talked about at various points in the night. Primarily the way the panel spoke about the survivor. One person stated that she was the most amazing woman and that he kept repeating something to the effect of “she is so amazing.” She is amazing for what? For being raped behind a dumpster? She is amazing for not killing herself like so many other victims of sexual assault/rape? She is amazing because she was able to press charges and go through a trial where she likely had to hear her rape recounted endless times in detail? She is amazing for having to have her story publicized for the world to see? She is amazing for what?
I do not doubt that the victim/survivor is an amazing person. But she is amazing in her own right. Surely her friends and family think that she is amazing because she is a student at Stanford, she is smart, I am sure they would say things like “she is kind” and maybe she has a lot of great talents and hobbies. I am sure she is an amazing person. However, it was disgusting to me the way that the victim/survivor was being framed in the conversation. He said that he wants to meet her someday as if she is a celebrity now. He elevated her and seemed to think that she can be an inspiration. I don’t think she ever wanted to be an inspiration. I don’t think she wants fans. I don’t think she wants to “meet” anyone.
When I heard that there would be an open forum on Brock Turner, I thought that there would be more critical conversations about how his case is just representative of privilege, power dynamics, the unnecessary elevation of college athletics, and how the conversation about what created “Brock Turner the Stanford rapist.” I feel like there were so many missed opportunities and incredibly large missteps. Sure, Brock Turner was expelled and he went to jail for three months. But, there are still dozens, maybe hundreds of “Brock Turners” still attending Stanford.
We were there to literally discuss Brock Turner’s case. Just Brock. Not the ones that exist here, not the ones that have existed here, not the ones that will exist here. Just Brock. I will forever have the name and face of this man burned into my brain. I have been beaten over the head with details from the case. I fear that one day I will remember more details about what happened to the woman that Brock Turner raped than I will about my own rape.
Anyone who was at the forum knows that eventually I got up during the question and answer portion to state my anger and frustration. I cried in front of over 70 people about how I felt erased and silenced. I felt angry and lost. I felt a lot. I cried for the first time in over six months at a forum on Brock Turner. After I left, I was told that a panelist replied, “well that’s why we’re talking about Brock Turner.” This panelist further erased and silenced me and focused the attention to Brock Turner.
I was not raped by Brock Turner. I was not raped by someone who looks like or identifies with Brock Turner. I was raped by someone who condemns Brock Turner’s actions. I was raped by a social justice activist. I was raped by someone who posts articles on articles on why Brock Turner’s case has been problematic and awful. Focusing on Brock Turner as some sort of learning opportunity , then replying with my real and traumatic experiences and concerns, silences me once again. It centers Brock Turner and our conversation about him as part of some resolution.
The conversation made me feel erased and I lived my abuse all over again inside of my head as the speakers continued to reinforce heterosexuality and the gender binary. I felt like I was being told my assault wasn’t real all over again. The conversation on Brock Turner ironically reminded me why I never reported, why I never went to the police, why I waited two entire years before admitting to anyone I had been abused, and why I still feel weird about identifying myself as a survivor. The more that I hear binary and heterosexual rhetoric about sexual assault and rape, the less that I feel that my experience and the violation of my body matters at all. My body is not part of “the discourse.” I get told quite often that my identity and experience are so “unique” and I am often made to feel like some weird identity unicorn. No one like me exists. Every time I attend another campus conversation on sexual assault, I begin to think maybe it’s true. Maybe I am alone. Maybe there aren’t people who were raped for being transgender. Maybe no one else’s abuser/perpetrator was a white woman. Maybe white women just don’t rape people. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I wasn’t raped. Maybe my ex girlfriend was just trying to do me a favor after all because she was trying to convince me not to be transgender through sexual assault. Maybe if I had accepted bystander help I wouldn’t have been raped. Maybe campus conversations about sexual assault were never supposed to include me anyways.
I left the forum on Brock Turner in tears, and biked into the night. I felt angry and I felt mortified that I had poured my pain out on a microphone during a question and answer session. All of the maybes inside of my head made me like the 70 remaining people in the forum felt like I was just being dramatic. I felt like I would never be able to show my face on campus again. I have been made to feel alone and isolated all of my life. After reliving my trauma and having it wiped away from the human imagination, I was able to vent to friends and realize that maybe, just maybe–
Maybe campus conversations on sexual assault need to change.