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Joanna Williams: The rape culture narrative does no one any favours


‘You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.’

This is not the start of a novel but the beginning of a statement read out in court last week by a young woman sexually assaulted while unconscious.

Former Stanford University student Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault and will spend the next six months in jail. The judge argued that a longer sentence would ‘have a severe impact on him’. In response, the young woman Turner assaulted provided a powerful account of how the attack had affected her.

The statement provided a nameless victim with an opportunity to address her attacker directly.  To her, this was not ‘20 minutes of action’, as Turner’s father so inappropriately described the assault. She was able to tell him, and all those present during the legal proceedings, of the devastating impact on her of the attack, the subsequent trial, and Turner’s continued refusal to accept responsibility for the crime he had committed.

In making her statement, Tuner’s victim also had in mind an audience beyond the courtroom; she moves from a powerful account of what she has endured to end with a message ‘to girls everywhere’. Her 7,000 words, first given to and published on BuzzFeed, have since been reproduced on websites around the world and viewed over 15 million times.

Her statement concludes: ‘When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you.’ In drawing a parallel between the attack she suffered and the experiences of ‘girls everywhere’, Turner’s victim taps into a broader narrative of rape culture. Others have been more explicit. The leniency of the sentence, Turner’s refusal to admit his crime and the idiotic, insensitive remarks made by his father are all, we are told, symptomatic of a ‘rape culture’. Other details locate the attack more specifically within campus rape culture: Turner was an athlete, a swimmer with Olympic aspirations, the assault took place at a frat party, alcohol had been consumed.

Placing this terrible attack so firmly within a rape culture narrative does no one any favours. It lets Turner off the hook. He is not personally responsible; a culture of misogynistic song lyrics, pornographic images, sexist banter and alcohol-fuelled laddishness made him do it. Worse, it tells girls everywhere: this could happen to you. Rape culture assumes all men are potential rapists and all women victims-in-waiting.

But the rape culture narrative is premised on a lie. Thankfully, ‘girls everywhere’ are not likely to be raped. The facts in Turner’s case are newsworthy precisely because they are not an everyday occurrence.

Talk of a broader rape ‘culture’ bypasses the need for statistics. Where figures are used, the claim that ‘one woman in five’ will be sexually assaulted is most often cited. However, even the researchers that arrived at this statistic have cast doubt on its validity. They argue: ‘There are caveats that make it inappropriate to use the number as a baseline when discussing rape and sexual assault on campus.’ American statistics suggest the rate of rape and sexual assault among women aged 18 – 24 is slightly higher among non-students (7.6 per 1000) than students (6.1 per 1000). This is under one per cent.

Of course, as Turner’s victim articulately portrays, sexual assault can be devastating for the individuals concerned. But unnecessarily scaring girls everywhere can also be devastating. On campus, some young women are being prevented from enjoying their independence and the freedom to forge relationships, experiment and take risks – not by overbearing Victorian fathers but by campaigners against rape culture.

Such is the grip of the rape culture narrative that it is difficult to challenge. Those who defended Turner during his trial have been vilified; members of a band that spoke out have had gigs cancelled. Closing down discussion means that important questions such as the difference between regretted sex and rape, or sex that was not formally consented to and rape, or the role of individual responsibility are not raised. All is shrouded behind a veil of ‘I believe’. For the sake of girls and boys everywhere we need to replace believing with questioning and explode the myth of rape culture.

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Dr Joanna Williams
Dr Joanna Williams
Joanna Williams is the education editor of Spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.

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