If you Google "unconscious intoxicated woman," you may be terrified by the results. One line from the Stanford rape victim's powerful statement after the sentencing of Brock Turner, who assaulted her, hit a nerve for many of us: "In newspapers my name was 'unconscious intoxicated woman,'" she wrote, "10 syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am." I knew what would happen before I began to see where else the phrase showed up on the internet — victim blaming and rape fetishizing.
But when I typed in those 10 syllables, the same 10 syllables that the Stanford rape victim felt she had been reduced to following media coverage of Turner's trial, an amazing thing happened. I scrolled through the first page of search results, then the second, the third, the fourth — no awful diatribes. It was instead headline after headline voicing outrage over Brock Turner's sentence. It was think pieces on how Brock's father's response — "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action" — was the embodiment of rape culture in America. It was a petition calling for the judge's removal from the bench.
But then I applied search filters that took me back over the past year and found that, in March, there was another surge in articles in response to the query "unconscious intoxic woman" — this one because a court in Oklahoma ruled that "state law doesn't criminalize oral sex with a victim who is completely unconscious." And it was these two results juxtaposed against each other — the wave of support for the Stanford victim and the mind-blowing ruling in Oklahoma — that revealed something both encouraging and devastating about our society: Public opinion is changing in a way that supports victims of rape and sexual assault... but the courts are not.
On the one hand, the fact that public opinion is changing is a victory. It's changing at an agonizingly slow pace, and I wish it were happening faster, but that there is a shift happening at all — and that it is finally, finally tilting in the direction of justice — matters. But on the other, the biggest impediment when it comes to addressing systematic sexual violence is the court system. The courts, which are supposed to govern us, which are supposed to serve as our collective moral compass, continue to hand down rulings that basically, say, "You can get in trouble for a lot of stuff, but raping someone is rarely one of them."
We see this in the six-month sentence Brock Turner got for the irreparable damage he caused to the victim's life; he had been faced with 14 years of jail time, the prosecution asked for six years, and what came down was six months. We see this in the Oklahoma ruling that a nonconsensual sexual act cannot be considered rape if the victim is unconscious — despite the fact that an unconscious person is unable to consent in the first place.
And public opinion hasn't completed its shift yet; there's still the belief that retribution for rape is only OK if the attack was really, really, "classically" violent. The idea that rape itself is inherently violent, that even if the victim didn't scream or run or fight it was still an attack, remains an unpopular one — despite the fact that, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 82 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Rapists are not hiding in the bushes, committing crimes at knifepoint, yet that's still the prevailing belief. We will clearly not be living in a utopia free of gendered violence and rape culture and the patriarchy any time soon.
I have personally known enough lives ruined by trials to believe that a fair verdict will never be handed down to a sexual assault victim. And no matter how much public opinion changes, this will remain true as long as the courts remain where they are.
Something needs to happen. Because the number of people who find themselves reduced to "unconscious intoxicated women and men" is unacceptable.