August 16, 2016

The Conversations We Have With Our Daughters:
When the rehabilitation of rapists is prioritized over the recovery of victims

[content note: this post deals with sexual assault and related issues]

Every summer, my stepdaughters stay for about six weeks, starting in June. Since Spousal Unit and I have been together ten years, I've spanned a large chunk of their childhoods--they were two and four when we first met, and now, they're teens or nearly teens.

With this new phase, like with all parenting stages, a unique set of challenges presents itself. I ran into this headfirst this summer. It began when the phone rang on a Thursday morning, just after ten. We had a busy day ahead of us, and everyone was chipping in to get housework done before the exterminator came to do our quarterly treatment. So I answered it, and passed the phone off to my youngest stepdaughter when the voice on the other end asked for her.

"I can't talk right now," she said. "I've got to help make sure the house is ready. I'll call you when I can talk." She hung up, and I thought nothing of it.

Until the phone rang again, about fifteen minutes later. And then again, just a while after that. And again...and again...and again. Each time, it was the same number. She'd answer it and say the same spiel. Each time, I saw the frustration that played across her face.

On the other end of the line was a boy about her age who had decided that he wanted her attention. Finally, after she hung up again, I said, "Is this bothering you? Would you like for me to answer next time?" She nodded, looking relieved.

And the next time, I did. I picked up the phone and I explained to the young person on the other end of the line that this was our home phone, that my stepdaughter had set a clear boundary, and that I expected him to respect her boundary. Can you guess which part of the conversation he keyed in on?

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was her cell phone."

I have to be honest, I saw red. I snapped back with, "The issue is not the phone. The issue is you not respecting the boundaries that my stepdaughter has clearly set for you. Even if you were calling her cellphone, we'd still be having this conversation, and I sincerely hope you are not disrespecting her boundaries in other areas, because I can promise you, you will be deal with her father, and her mother, and me. This is not acceptable."

By the end of the conversation, I had put the fear of God, or at least, the fear of me, into a kid half my age, and I couldn't even bring myself to feel guilty about it. Instead, I was thinking of all the bullshit she will deal with, for the rest of her life, because of men that don't respect her boundaries. I thought of all the conversations that we (general we, not our family in particular) have with our daughters to try to protect them.

We tell them, "Hey, you may not want to wear that. Someone could get the wrong idea." We say, "Don't drink too much. You don't want to have regrets." We chide them, "If you're going out, take friends. Don't walk alone. Keep your keys in your hand. Don't talk on your phone. Don't look distracted. Don't wear your hair in a ponytail like that--it's easy to grab. If you're drinking, cover your drink. Don't put it down. Don't look away from it. Don't go to the bathroom alone. Park under streetlights. Don't unlock your car with the remote as you approach it--someone could see the lights and attack you."

We tell them all of this stuff because we desperately want to believe that if we can cover everything, they'll be safe. Nothing will hurt them. I distinctly remember one conversation in particular with my father after he read a news story about a young woman who was attacked at a gas station, kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered. I remember the look on my dad's face when he said, "Promise me you won't stop for gas after dark by yourself. Just don't do it. If you absolutely need to, call me. I'll come to you." And I did promise, and it's only recently--almost twelve years later--that I have started to loosen up on that promise. I can remember scheduling road trips so that I would be able to fill up for the last leg before dark, all because of a conversation with my father--all because I could see how badly he wanted me to be safe.

These conversations aren't a one off. They're a million little things over the years that build up into a cohesive narrative: If you just do what's right, you'll be safe.

As feminists, we often deconstruct this narrative. We point out that somewhat conveniently what's safe really adds up to being a rather traditional picture of femininity--sober, "modestly" dressed, home by dark, etc. We point out that it's not up to us to prevent rape. It's up to rapists not to rape. We point out a myriad of ways that rape culture permeates our wider social mores and norms.

But it doesn't change the fact that on a wide scale, we're teaching our daughters to live in fear, to run through a checklist of what they should and shouldn't do, all to avoid a crime that it increasingly seems like isn't a crime.

You see, part of my bottled up rage unleashed over the phone that day was driven by the story of Brock Turner from just a few weeks earlier. He, of course, was the rapist with good swim times, convicted of raping an unconscious woman, convicted by a jury of his peers, and then sentenced to only six months in jail (of which he'll probably only serve half).

I revisited that place recently as yet another convicted rapist--emphasis on convicted!--was sentenced to no real prison time, and instead will do work release from the county jail and probation. Here's the judge's reasoning:

"I don't know that there is any great result for anybody," Butler said. "Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated."

It shocked me, again, to see the needs of a rapist so clearly prioritized over the needs of his victim, and over the needs of potential future victims. If part of the point of sentencing is to deter future crimes, what message does this send to potential rapists?

Here's a breakdown of what happened:

Wilkerson’s victim drank too much celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and Wilkerson told her friends he’d take care of her. Instead, he “isolated and raped the half-conscious victim,” prosecutors said in court documents. 
Wilkerson admitted to investigators he’d made advances to the victim that night, “but that she rebuffed him each time, and that he felt ‘pissed off’ and called her a ‘fucking bitch,’” according to court documents. 
Wilkerson told the jury that the woman wasn’t inebriated and that their sexual activity was consensual. His defense argued that the victim filed a rape claim to cover up for a drop in her grades. 

"We had consensual sex after she had told me no a whole bunch of times." Yeah, that makes sense.

We invest so much energy in these conversations with our daughters, and yet, they are still systemically devalued by lenient sentencing like this. It's maddening.

Say it with me: The safety and recovery of victims far outweighs the rehabilitation of rapists.

Tell the judges. Tell the prosecutors. Tell the police. Tell the whole damn world.

Victims over rapists.

Why is this even a discussion to be had?

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