Trigger warning: Discussion of rape and sexual assault throughout, including victim blaming and rape culture.
Back in 1986, Jill Saward was raped during a burglary at her father’s vicarage in West London. One defendant was given a longer sentence for his part in the burglary than her assault – five years and three years respectively–and Old Bailey Judge Sir John Leonard stated that her suffering was “not so great” when giving this lenient sentence. She waived her right to anonymity to campaign for better treatment for rape victims by the judicial system. Jill died in January 2017. But have things gotten any better?
The problem with comments made by judges such as Leonard is that they directly feed into rape culture. Delve into what ‘MRAs’ say on Twitter and ‘criteria’ set up for ‘real’ rape victims, like screaming and crying, pop up very quickly. This is illustrated well in recent discussions on ‘stealthing’, or removing a condom during sex, where it was said that calling this act rape was an “insult to real rape victims” (emphasis added). Rape culture exists on the streets, in our social groups and on social media, but despite Saward’s case being over 30 years ago, sentiments are still being echoed in our judiciary in enough cases for notice to be taken.
Lindsey Kushner made her final remarks before retiring when sentencing a Manchester rapist to six years, saying “as a woman judge” she did not “think it’s wrong for a judge to beg women to take actions to protect themselves”, in response to the fact that the victim had been out all night drinking. Kushner came under fire with comparisons to the kind of victim blaming statements made by those who automatically assume a woman is ‘crying rape’ if she was drunk, particularly if her alcohol consumption was voluntary or even enthusiastic.
In Canada, Robin Camp acquitted a man in a verdict that was later overturned. He had stated “Young wom[e]n want to have sex, particularly if they’re drunk”, and asked the accuser why she hadn’t done more to prevent her assault; “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” He later apologised for “rude and insulting” comments.
In Texas, USA, Janine Howard convicted a 20 year old for the rape of a 14 year old, giving him only a 45 day sentence because she “wasn’t the victim she claimed to be” after learning she’d had three previous sexual partners and had given birth.
In Scotland, Lady Scott did not convict a 19 year old of the rape of a 12 year old girl despite his guilty plea, stating “I do not consider there is any need for, or public interest in, punishment”. The victim was 12 years and 7 months. Lady Scott stated the specific law for the rape of girls under 13 existed to protect them from “predatory adult males” but also to “protect them from themselves”.
Montana judge G Todd Baugh convicted a teacher for the rape of a 15 year old student who had since killed herself. The sentence that lead to him only serving 31 days was based on the fact that she was “probably as much in control of the situation as was the defendant”. The sentence was later revised due to bias and the defendant got ten years.
Perhaps the most memorable example in recent times is the case of Brock Turner. The Stanford student was stopped by two passers-by from assaulting a young woman behind a dumpster after a frat party. He was convicted of multiple felonies, including assault with intent to rape.
“When judges’ courtroom comments read like the ‘banter’ you read on Facebook, rape culture in society is legitimised.”
Judge Aaron Persky made the case infamous by only sentencing Turner to six months in prison, of which he would serve three due to good behaviour. The potential maximum was 14. The usual minimum was two. The judge said of Turner’s intoxication at the time of the crime, it “is not an excuse” but “it’s mitigating”, further feeding into the idea that the victim should have avoided alcohol for her safety, but it excuses his behaviour.
To top it off is the similarities between the sentencing remarks from the judge and a statement from Turner’s father. Due to Turner’s age and lack of criminal history, Persky stated “a prison sentence will have a severe impact on him”. Dan Turner wrote “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”. It’s worth mentioning that neither Turner, nor his family, have acknowledged the assault as an assault, and the only apologies have been for the distress of the victim–with no focus on his crime as the cause.
The problem here is that if rape culture has entered our judiciary system, evidenced here as far back as the mid 80s, it possesses the capacity for untold harm. When judges’ courtroom comments read like the ‘banter’ you read on Facebook, or sound like what Trump refers to as “locker room talk”, rape culture in society is legitimised and perpetuated. This isn’t just happening in isolated incidents. The picture painted is one of our legal systems agreeing with and using the exact language of rape jokes and rape apologists.
If we don’t stop that, we’ve already lost.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can contact Rape Crisis.
Jill Saward’s co-founded campaign group to educate juries can be found here.