Action and speech

Probably like many people who've glanced at the internet over the past 24 hours, I have been moved to tears by this statement by the victim of a sexual assault case in the US. The case itself has received significant attention in the media. The perpetrator received an almost laughably light sentence of six months jail time, out of a maximum of 14 years, and is repeatedly referred to as a 'swim star', causing many, including the victim herself, to question just what exactly that has to do with anything. Brock Turner's mugshot has vanished from screens, replaced instead by a grinning high school portrait, so vacant it seems to say, 'rapist? I've never even met one, let alone been one!' But, as Clementine Ford pointed out today, this is exactly what a rapist looks like: someone who has no idea they have committed a crime. The fact that his sentence was so light also proves that despite the obvious fact of the assault, this is also what rape culture looks like. It looks like a lot of people who have no idea that a crime has been committed, even when the victim points it out, painstakingly, in over 7,000 words. I want to talk about those 7,000 words because I think they are extraordinary. 

The writer begins by addressing her remarks directly to her attacker: 'you don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that's why we're here today'. She goes on to walk him through his crime, from her perspective, which begins not at the crime scene, but at the hospital, where she experiences the profoundly disembodying experience of witnessing bruising and assault to her body, with no memory of how it got there. She describes feeling pine needles and dirt in her hair, leaving 'a pile of them in every room [she] sat in'. Then there is the realisation that her underwear is gone:

When I was finally allowed to use the restroom, I pulled down the hospital pants they had given me, went to pull down my underwear, and felt nothing. I still remember the feeling of my hands touching my skin and grabbing nothing. I looked down and there was nothing. The thin piece of fabric, the only thing between my vagina and anything else, was missing and everything inside me was silenced

This silencing is why the statement is so powerful, and also why the sentencing is so pathetically inadequate. Because the crime she describes is not about violence (only), or physical pain, or even violation. It is about silencing, taking away, enforced muteness, which happens not solely in the crime itself, but after the crime has been committed, and throughout the protracted legal campaign she is subjected to. It also appears in the drowning out of the victim's voice through the incessant (and irrelevant) questioning of Turner's legal counsel, which exists not only to establish innocence, but to propel the perpetrator towards the position of speech, of being the only one able to speak. When the victim can't remember details, Turner is called forward to 'fill in the blanks' (read: smooth it all over, in his favour).

In her statement, the writer even describes her own self-enforced silences. She drives to secluded locations to let out a scream. She finds places at work where no one can hear her cry. She doesn't tell her sister about her bruises because she doesn't want to see her reaction, because that will 'make it real'. She describes a year of being spoken for, by the media, and in the false words of her attacker and his legal team. But what I love most about this statement is that you can hear a unique, individual voice in here, someone irreparably hurt, but also totally baffled and angered by the situation in which she finds herself: here, on the stand, still schooling her attacker in his own crime. She is scathing, and she is funny. She writes:

You said, you are in the process of establishing a program for high school and college students in which you speak about your experience to “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.”

Drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that. Goes along with that, like a side effect, like fries on the side of your order. Where does promiscuity even come into play? I don’t see headlines that read, Brock Turner, Guilty of drinking too much and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that. Campus Sexual Assault. There’s your first powerpoint slide.

Even in this turgid, lengthy, expensive and demoralising situation the fact remains: the perpetrator has no idea of his crime. This is confirmed in a statement by his father who described the crime as a mere '20 minutes of action', almost as though disappointed by its brevity. But what this case makes clear is that the 'action' of sexual assault is hardly the point. The point is what it takes away, its denial of self and agency, and finally the denial of speech that is extenuated by the legal system. It reflects the continuation of women as passive (mute), and men as active (speaking). This is grimly underscored by the fact that Brock Turner wants to turn his misadventure as a sexual assailant into a career as a public speaker.

But in the victim's statement, something happens. Action is reclaimed by speech, and victimhood is no longer associated with muteness. I love this writing, and I am so awed by the courage required to unswallow this trauma. The whole thing bristles with emotion and rawness, contempt and power. It's visceral and riveting. It's so, so sad, and disorienting, and strange. It has cracks everywhere, and it is suffused with a sense of the last resort. This is the kind of writing that needs to be read, almost as if it will shrivel up and engulf itself in flames if it is ignored.