Recent rape cases on college campuses are rehashing the same old victim blaming messages. It’s time for a new narrative.
“I was not the victim in their eyes but someone who was trying to take a young man’s future away from him.”
This week, Brock Turner is scheduled to be released from jail. The Stanford student has only served three months of a six-month sentence for raping an unconscious woman.
In a similar case, University of Colorado student Austin Wilkerson was let off with a light sentence earlier this month despite raping an inebriated woman. He confessed that he “digitally and orally penetrated” the woman while he “wasn’t getting much of a response from her.”
Both offenders are white, privileged males. The message the justice system sent by giving them lenient sentences is the same message I received as a girl growing up: The lives of the Brock Turners and Austin Wilkersons of the world are a lot more important than the lives of the women they violate.
In both cases, the victim blaming started immediately. Brock Turner had bright prospects, everyone said. He could have been the next Michael Phelps. A few seconds of fun shouldn't ruin all that. Who told the women to get drunk? Who told them to behave like sluts and flirt? If the women hadn’t been drinking, no one would have taken advantage of them.
We always hear about what the women should or shouldn’t have done.When I was 14 or 15 and living in India, a guy who had a crush on me sent me flowers. My father, a very conservative man, sent them back. Later that night, he sat me down and told me in Gujarati, "Tu gaand halavine chaalti hase eni saame, etle ene tane phool mokalya" (You must have enticed him by shaking your butt and hips when you walked past him. That's why he sent you flowers).
My mother sat next to him, shaking her head in agreement. “Barabar che, ekdam barabar che” (You’re right, you’re absolutely right), she responded to her husband, slut shaming me more.
It was all my fault. If I didn't shake my ass, men wouldn't be attracted to me. If only I covered myself and didn’t walk that way, men wouldn't notice me. If only I kept my head down when I was walking down the street, I could avoid their gaze. If only…
So why couldn't I? What was I doing wrong that men were attracted to me? How could I stop it? The answer eluded me. I blamed my genes; I blamed my mind; I blamed everything about me. I hated myself because I caused my parents so much pain. I hated myself for being so “friendly” with boys. I hated everything I did to draw the attention of men and most of all I hated that I didn't know what those things were. If only I knew, I could stop doing them. If only…
A few years later, when I was in college in Pennsylvania, my ex-boyfriend got violent with me and grabbed me by my shoulder. Somehow I was able to break free, run to my apartment, and call the cops.
They came and told me they would go “talk” to him. Never once did they ask me if I wanted a restraining order. Never once did they inform me of my rights as a victim of violence. After a few weeks, I was told to appear in court for a hearing.
Word spreads quickly on a college campus and students started to avoid me. My friends took his side and bowed their heads down in the corridor when they passed me. I was not the victim in their eyes but someone who was trying to take a young man’s future away from him.
The president of the International Student Body reached out to me. I thought I might finally find support from a fellow woman of color. Instead, she told me I could allow his future to flourish if I took back everything. After all, his future was at stake. What he did that night was a stupid mistake. He didn't mean it. So why don’t I forget about it all and withdraw my complaint? Why would I want to make it harder for a black man in this country?
She said if only I hadn't aggravated him, none of this would have happened. If only I had called her instead of calling the police, she could have quietly handled it all. If only I had thought of my next course of action before haphazardly calling the police. If only…
I didn't withdraw my complaint but the judge ruled against me anyway. When I found out my ex was let off, I cried in the car with a friend. If only I hadn't complained. If only I had withdrawn the complaint, I wouldn't be humiliated. If only the judge would have believed me. If only the cops would have done more that night. If only…
We women are not a series of if onlys. We have the right to seek justice and not be blamed for someone else’s actions. Brock Turner raped a drunk woman, as did Austin Wilkerson. Men were not attracted to me because I shook my ass. It wasn't my fault. And what my ex did that night was not my responsibility. I didn't call the police haphazardly. I had a right to call them and they had a responsibility to inform me of my rights.
We live in a society where it is so easy to blame women, but this world does not operate on the wheels of women. Men are a vital part of preventing violence. We need to tell men to stop abusing and raping women. We need to stop blaming women for the actions of men.
As a domestic violence liaison, I see the need for this work every day. I see survivors uproot themselves, find new homes, change their routines, and avoid the abuser, but he still manages to find and harass them. If only the survivors could keep themselves safe. If only they could do more. If only…
It’s time to change this nauseating narrative so the next time a woman is violated, she finds justice under the law—so that next time, his privilege, his gender, and his future prospects do not factor into the decision. It’s time to shift the stigma onto him instead of us,so that next time he will be the one saying, "if only I hadn't done that."