Stories make us writers. And within our stories, we know that each of our characters has her or his own story to tell. I’ve always had a particular fascination with “he said, she said” stories, perhaps because of the delightfully humorous “Watching” by J.P. Kansas in The Mammoth Book of International Erotica, one of the first literary erotica anthologies I ever read. There is something especially satisfying about experiencing the same situation through different eyes.
Unfortunately, we’ve all had to make sense of a profoundly troubling “he said, she said, and then he said only six months” story in the recent news when Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to a surprisingly light sentence in the county jail (three months with good behavior) for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster in January 2015. The victim’s eloquent statement has resonated with millions of people. In a neighborhood parents’ discussion group, a woman wrote in and said that after reading that statement, her stepdaughter revealed that she’d been on a date with a man who forced her to perform a sex act against her will a few months before. Reading the victim’s statement made her feel she was less alone in an experience that had filled her with a sense of violation and shame. The woman wanted to know how she could convince her stepdaughter to press charges. I haven’t seen the community’s replies yet, but I don’t have much faith that victim would get justice from our legal system in a “date rape” situation that did not involve injuries or underage sex.
It is always difficult to get a conviction in a rape case, in particular an “intent to rape,” as happened with Brock Turner. His victim had convincing evidence on her side, although she was still subject to the same humiliating cross-examination about her character and dress that all rape victims must face in the legal process (you know, just to be sure before she passed out she didn’t actually consent to an act which resulted in lacerations and pine needles in her vagina, but then whimsically changed her mind later). She suffered documented physical injury and the assault happened while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster--a dirty, uncomfortable, public place. Most importantly, two male graduate students saw Brock Turner humping the victim’s inert body and realized something was wrong because the woman on the ground was not moving at all. Because the victim was unconscious, there was very little “she said” to the story, but the male graduate students provided a powerful additional “he said” to her side.
As my loyal readers are aware, I am currently doing research for a historical novel set in the early twentieth century. To a researcher, all things come to seem relevant to her work, and indeed I realized that attitudes towards sex and women’s behavior in 1910 provide a clue as to why Aaron Persky could be so sympathetic to Brock Turner. If we hope to make a real change in the way rape is viewed and dealt with today, we need to examine how the prejudices and assumptions of one hundred years ago are still with us.
The main attitude toward rape was, and apparently still is, that a woman who claims rape deserves what she got, because she put herself in the position where sexual activity could happen. There may be a few exceptions—if a stranger breaks into her house, for example, or a soldier from a hostile army treats her as war booty. However, a "respectable" woman always made sure to stay in a safe place under the supervision of her family, especially male protectors, to avoid sexual violation. Whether or not she was an actual prostitute, a woman who acted like one was giving up the security of that male protector of us all--the Law. Or in other words, if a woman was not respectable, a man could feel free not to respect her refusal or fear legal punishment when it came to having sexual relations with her.
In 1910, one slip on one occasion was enough for a woman’s swift demotion from the respectable to the available.
A woman was not respectable if she was under the influence of alcohol. Respectable women didn’t drink. Drinking alcohol in public was a sign of sexual availability.
A woman was not respectable if she wore make-up or dressed in a way that got attention. Prostitutes “painted” their faces and wore bright clothes as an advertisement of their business. Wearing make-up and dressing in a flashy way was a sign of sexual availability.
A woman was not respectable if she went out alone especially at night, if she agreed to go to a man’s room or retire to a place with him out of the sight of others. By placing herself in the company of men who were not her protectors, she was saying yes to anything they may care to do to her.
A woman was not respectable if she was African-American. All African-Americans were considered to be inherently immoral and African-American women were assumed to welcome sexual attention from anyone at any time. Not only during the period of slavery but well after, no white man was ever indicted for the rape of a black woman.
A woman was not respectable if she had sexual experience outside of marriage. And until recently, any sexual act initiated by her husband, no matter how violent or unwanted, was not legally defined as rape. As John Burnham writes in Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History:
“... Women were supposed to be pure or at least virgins until they married and men, who were still constrained to uphold conventional standards verbally in public, were presumed in actual behavior to be beasts who could not resist sexual temptation, who sowed wild oats when young and whose passions would impel them to commit adultery with any available woman on an occasion—with tacit community approval. As a YWCA spokesperson noted in 1899, ‘society excuses the sin in men; in the women never.’” (p. 179)
This is but a partial list of “she deserved it” behavior. If followed to the letter, any woman concerned for her safety must wear a gray sack and no make-up, never drink alcohol, never have sexual experience or desires outside of marriage, never go out in public without proper protection and never be alone behind closed doors with a man. These restrictions on an adult’s autonomy seem ridiculous today, but these same assumptions lie behind the questions Brock Turner’s lawyer asked the victim. Does the color of the cardigan she wore make a difference in determining whether or not she was raped? Indeed, such questions are designed to determine if a woman invited or otherwise "deserved" the rape according to the old-fashioned double standard of sexual morality. Were the clothes Brock Turner wore that night scrutinized as a key to deciding his guilt?
Because men controlled the law and moral discourse, and still control it to a degree that Aaron Persky well reveals, “he said, she said” always favors the “he.” A friend and I were discussing how traditionally a sexual encounter would only be termed “rape” if a male third party provided evidence or confirmation that the encounter did not appear consensual and/or the woman was verified to be too pure or high-status to say yes to sex with the accused. Screaming, resistance, and/or violence were necessary. A man doing sexual things to an unconscious woman would qualify as a violation for most observers as well, and it certainly helped her reputation if the woman was murdered during the encounter. If the woman was awake and suffered unwanted sexual advances quietly, consent was assumed. I wondered how things would be different if the opposite were true—what if every man required a woman eyewitness to confirm the encounter was consensual or it would be assumed he was a rapist? How would that change the nature of sexual encounters? And yet today most victims of rape face a similarly impossible bar of proof.
Aaron Persky’s sentence has ignited a passionate discussion on the internet—about drinking and sexual assault on campus, about the role of the legal system in victimizing the victim, about what can be done to change the status quo. Change will not be easy, but one positive step is talking more openly about sexual experiences, both good and bad, and challenging outdated assumptions that blind our judgment. Telling our stories honestly, as Brock Turner’s victim did, is the best place to start.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor