In my god-awful freshman year Anatomy & Physiology class, we talked about the concept of a negative feedback system. By definition, it is a regulatory mechanism in which a disturbance or malfunction in a system causes an output in order to maintain an ideal level of whatever is being regulated. So in normal-people terms, the mechanism acts only when something goes wrong and provides some sort of response that will bring everything back to normal. Why am I reminiscing on old lectures during which I was probably half-asleep? Because when I read any article on the heinous sexual assault of a young woman by Brock Turner at Stanford University, aside from sadness and anger for the survivor, as anyone with a heart would have, I feel something else. Something that flares up every time I see another person sharing the young woman’s letter or posting their outrage at the fact that Brock Turner’s yearbook photo was featured far more prominently than his mugshot. This little tightness in my chest is bitterness.
Please do not get me wrong – I am not bitter about the letter or the wide media coverage of this case. The national dialogue about sexual violence this young woman’s letter has sparked is jaw dropping and I hope that people keep talking and voicing their outrage. Unfortunately, sexual assault is a crime that too often is silenced. Sexual assault is silenced by colleges that fail to give support to survivors and fail to take action against perpetrators in an effort to hide the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses. Sexual assault is silenced by a judicial system that time and time again fails to give justice by prioritizing the future of the perpetrators, like in the case of Brock Turner, by giving them a reduced sentence, or failing altogether to have perpetrators serve jail time after their survivors of their crimes are torn apart in the courtroom by the defense. Sexual assault is silenced by a misplaced but nonetheless present sense of guilt and shame felt by survivors, robbing them of their voices to call for justice or for help dealing with the violent loss of one of their most fragile, emotionally-charged rights – the right to consent.
I realize I may have digressed a little, and I apologize, but all of that needs to be said over and over by every person and every media outlet until something changes. Because that is what I am bitter about. I am bitter that it takes a young woman being violently assaulted and degraded behind a dumpster by a “respected” athlete at a “respected” school for the world to take notice. I am bitter that it takes a young woman being torn apart on the stand only to have her perpetrator receive a minimal sentence for people to question how our judicial system handles sexual assault cases. Finally, I am bitter that even with all this discourse around sexual assault right now, I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that eventually people will forget. The Summer Olympics will come and some celebrity couple will have a baby, and suddenly the media will suddenly forget about that courageous young woman who wrote that letter.
I worry because that has happened before. Sexual assault is nothing new, and public outrage against it is nothing new. Yet every time an assault is covered by the media, there is a flurry of activism and outrage until something else captures the attention of the public, making it impossible for real change to be done. Our societal and judicial reaction to sexual assault is not only a negative feedback system, but a broken one. In this system, sexual assault to put it very simply is a “malfunction” in basic human behavior. One would think that a system would detect an act so fundamentally depraved and act appropriately each time it happens, like how a healthy body reacts with a fever in response to an infection. This unfortunately is not the case. Our reaction to sexual violence is like if your immune system detects one in every million infections, but the fever generated is not even high enough to kill the bacteria causing the infection and sometimes there is no fever at all. Like infections, sexual assault is sadly a problem that our society will realistically always face. There will always be someone twisted enough to think that they have a right to another person’s body. This is a dark thought but it is an honest one. However, our reaction to sexual assault needs to be strong enough to at least stop the source of the problem. Yes, I am comparing the perpetrators of sexual violence to bacteria, and I wish had paid more attention in Microbiology so I could use a life form even lower than bacteria to express how little I think of them.
We need a society that will not be desensitized to sexual violence, but will rather scream their outrage every single time a person is robbed of their autonomy, safety, dignity, and body in a sexual assault. We need a judicial system that will take every claim of sexual violence seriously and prosecute the accused to the fullest extent of the law. If we had such a system, maybe we would have more dialogue in schools about the idea of consent, and maybe Brock Turner would have thought twice before violating an unconscious woman. Maybe I would have only had to endure my Anatomy & Physiology lecture in my freshman year and not a senior overpowering me when I was scarcely sober enough to untie my shoes let alone consent. Maybe. Or maybe it all would have happened anyway. The point is that in the next couple of weeks, when summer concerts begin and your favorite celebrity couple breaks up, remember what is really important. I am not saying that you should live in a state of misery and hopelessness – I am a huge proponent of living life to its happiest and fullest potential. What I am saying is to not let go of your outrage. Remember that what happened to the woman in that letter happens to around twenty percent of young women who go to college seeking educational enrichment and personal exploration, not trauma. Remember that it can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. I know that you’ve heard all of this before, but I am not afraid of sounding redundant. What I am afraid of is you forgetting these things that I think about almost every single day of my life. So for me, for the awe-inspiring woman who wrote that letter, for survivors and those who love them, and for people who don’t know it yet but will one day also have to carry this burden – please remember.