This article was originally published by The Big and Little World: Awe, Outrage and Hope and is republished with permission.
Brock Turner got out “for good behavior” today. Throw him a fish for having honked a horn. Scratch his ears for not pooping on the floor. Reward him for the basic behavior that is incentivized though he failed at the most human thing: kindness when there is opportunity. We already know Brock Turner responds to incentives because one night he came across a girl who was bad off. He saw she was unable to take care of herself. He weighed the risks and the rewards, assumed his overall goodness was sufficient and, instead of taking care of her, he pushed her down and forced himself inside of her. She was not a human to him. She was an opportunity. She was a thing that fulfilled his desire and ability to gain.
It is not merely the physical violence of action that is violative. That goes away. Sometimes, it is not violent at all, or not enough. In the face of fear, many of us freeze and lose our voices and go numb when someone pushes inside you or abuses you. We have all stood agape at a car accident or an awkward moment. We avert our eyes. Those are little things. You may “go away” during trauma because you know, like I did, you are small and weak and that it could get a lot worse. Sometimes, I wish I had fought so that they could have had to hit me. So I would have the scars on the outside. So that I would feel the pain was evident and someone would help me tend to those wounds. Sometimes, I wish I had died instead. I spent years waiting, walking in unsafe neighborhoods and partaking in unsafe behavior, waiting for another chance to kill or die. I wanted it to hurt in a way that was big enough to punish me and beg to be saved. And once, someone did save me for a time. They treated me like a human. They loved me unconditionally. They let me know it was unfair and not everyone makes it not-okay to be small and delicate. He let me know it was not my fault and the world, at least in his arms, was safe. He let me know that we can choose to be good — even when there are incentives not to be.
There is one truth you have to realize: there are monsters. There are monsters everywhere. They look like you and me. They are invisible until they attack. They make love, sex and kindness unsafe. There is one other truth that goes with this: bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That is what you have to be strong enough to accept if you are not someone who has had to struggle to live to that conclusion. It is easier to say, “I was bad. I did something wrong.” Because then you can say, “I will not do that again.” Hot stove. Burned hand. Case closed. But when it becomes dangerous walking home from a party, having sex, loving someone or when the things that are “normal” to other people are scary and foreign, how do you continue? Who tells you, like my ex did, “It is okay. You are safe. I see what happened. I love you. You are beautiful.”? Because you sure do not feel any of those things.
We have so many misconceptions still about rape and abuse. We think it is as legitimately traumatic as it is violent. We think bad situations lead to bad outcomes. We see runaways as stupid. We see girls as unwise because they went home with the wrong boy. We see choices where there were few because we want to.
My first rape was my second sexual experience. I was 16. He was extraordinarily handsome, popular, much older and I liked him. He let me promote for his club and act like a big girl. He “let me” feel sexy. I felt like an adult. I felt special for his attention. But, he had a girlfriend. And when he told me he wanted to talk to me about something in private, the electronic music pumping and me feeling cute and strong, I thought he really really liked me. I was excited. I was excited that he might want to date me. Maybe he would teach me what it means to be a woman. I was excited he was going to say he would leave his girlfriend. I was not excited when he used that privacy to force his way inside of me behind a curtain with my back against the wood floor. And when someone peaked into the room and he was inside of me and I had been saying no, he stopped for a moment and put his hand over my mouth. He told me to be quiet. He was calm, aware and inside of me. I did nothing. I was a good obedient girl and shaking beneath him, I was quiet.
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I went home. I showered. I cut off all my hair. I left home. I did not talk about it for more than a year. During that time, I met my first boyfriend. He was also much older. I was a runaway reading poetry and writing on my own, living my bohemian life to get away from a broken family. He became my roommate’s friend so he could talk to me. Then he wiggled his way into being my friend. He was unattractive, so maybe he would be good to me. He was not like the other one. He said nice things. He spent time. He came off as a nice guy. And then he told me I was too broken to be loved because I turned him down. I proved myself, though. I proved I could be loved. I proved it with two years of sexual abuse, constant berating and crying in the shower. I proved it with my body, which he called fat though I was a wispy 110lbs. From 17 through19 years old I cried in the shower, huddled on the floor in the wet noise, every time “he” had sex. He told me if I loved him, I would let him do things that I did not like. They wouldn’t hurt if I loved him. And I was good. But it still was bad. I would wonder if I was broken and not good enough for love. And I am a loving person. Love became dangerous. Sex became sabotage. My boyfriend was worse than the rape, but he probably would not have happened without that first rape.
There were other times. Lots of other times. Over the years, love became something I avoided. I was scared of it and not good enough for love. I failed. Things had happened to me; there must be a reason. I had dreams of faceless men with sharp teeth chasing me. I had dreams of being hunted, trapped, naked, and mostly invisible and voiceless when something dire was about to happen. But, I still wanted closeness. So, I could not trust myself with it. I took it from men who could not care enough to tell me “if you loved me”: married men, predacious men, violent men, handsome men who I could boast about because I would be impenetrable like them. They were strong. They did not care. They used me up front. So, it was not using. It was just how things are. It was the truth. It had to be. I would not be fooled into loving. But I was not able to be like them. I fell for men. I abused myself. I got numb. I broke and finally knew what it was to be truly broken. I had no hope. It left with trust. I saw no good in the weakness of it. There were men who used that weakness of love, made me feel special and safe, only to get inside me another way. I tried so hard to be what they wanted on the terms the world showed me. Always a thing. Never a human being with feelings. Always conditional on performance and utility. This is a microcosm of something much more pernicious that is in our culture at large. Namely, that it comes down to what it is to be and value a human being.
For a victim, we understand that an experience of being dehumanized can change the landscape you live in both inside yourself and out in the world. (And, no I will not use the euphemism of “survivor”, though you are free to. It was never a choice.) Trauma can set off a nuclear winter. The world is, in fact, dangerous and war torn. There are bad people. There are good people. There are monsters who are handsome. There are monsters who say they love you. There are monsters that you may try and become because monsters have claws and teeth and they are more dangerous than they are vulnerable. Some do not choose, as I have, to risk being hurt over hurting others. The violence and ugliness of the world hurt more to me to be part of it. I vowed that I would never be the monsters I created. That fear is too deep in me. I will never become the things that make the world ugly. I will not use, discard or dehumanize another person. There is no incentive that makes it okay. You have to feel. You have to trust, which is hard. I can look at the places still where I am scared. Normal places where my feelings step back because they are unsure. “Will they hurt me?” “Will they want me? Am I good?” In that dissociation and trembling hesitation, the performance can continue. I can look human. But feeling human is not the same thing as being a body.
Yes, some of us learn that humanity is fragile and can be compromised. I know what I have learned from my story: the world is dangerous, but I do not have to be. You do not have to be. My assailants managed to make me afraid to love for some time, though I was always very loving. I wrote love notes to my parents well into adulthood. When someone was sad, I soothed and entertained them. I fought boys who pulled the wings off ladybugs. Sometimes, usually, I am still afraid to the quick of my being. I find my inside self hiding, waiting to see if I am really me, if I am seen — especially when I am naked or vulnerable. I don’t know what normal is. But I know the scariest thing, the times when I was trying to destroy myself, was when I did not want my humanity. I wanted no vulnerability. I wanted to punish my desire for love. Feeling for others — that is human. That is how violence threatens to take our humanity away. It compromises our ability to feel, especially for others. I know the fragility of love. I know how deeply an unkind thing can hurt someone. I know that I will not use love to hurt anyone. We need safety too badly. We need love to matter.
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Back to Brock Turner, prized white tiger that purrs when the hand that feeds it pets it and gives it things. Do not forget that a predator is just that. It is wired in them. They always choose the incentive. When we excuse this sense of utility and selfishness, we lean toward that system of thinking. Brock Turner is not worth my time. He is a rapist. That is it. He will never have a Wheaties endorsement now. He sadness will make his steaks taste bad and his conscience feel clean. His daddy will hold his hand. That poor white kid who had everything — he was good, he is good, he will be redeemed through some simulacrum of success. No, fuck Brock Turner. I hope the public remembers him longer than they will remember the victim. She is nameless, for her own protection. I hope his inhumanity shows up on every job application and dating scenario. But, I doubt it will affect him too much. And here is why: Brock Turner will be forgiven because he looks like a good person. And he will behave like a good person, even though he is not. The self-centeredness will become obsequious and find ways to work itself into relationships and rhetoric instead of on a public pathway of an Ivy League school where he was exposed for the violence he always had inside himself. Maybe he feels bad. I would bet it is for himself. I will enjoy a steak soon and celebrate that I am not Brock Turner. But it is not Brock Turner I care about. It is you.
I think the saddest part of this case is the cultural and legal excuses that were given for him by the public and friends. We failed. And that means we have a system that will continually allow this sort of selfish, destructive, cruel behavior. We will continue to only hold and support victims we decide to for as long as we decide to while we at once create perpetrators through the machinery of privilege.
I think it’s important to see the real faces: it’s not always your creepy uncle or the sleazy dude. Monsters don’t look like monsters. Monsters are made. And monsters behave like monsters. It shows underneath their disguises, their human skin, their power. Because all monsters have power. They really do claw. They consume. They eat the flesh of innocence. They lurk. They do so in a world that doesn’t see them for what they are. We see surfaces. We allow them to exist. We forgive them “human nature” because they are redeemable. They live without the scars they inflict. Because they were once good to “us” or in our minds.
The problem is where we put value. We worship success and leave no room for failure. So we, as a society, fail when we see failure or misfortune as saying something about the value of a person. This person succeeded in wealth, celebrity or power so they are good. That person failed to get a good education, a good job, a good partner so they are bad. In creating these associations, which wear in like ruts, we streamline social functioning into a terrifyingly myopic judgment. We inhibit growth, community and love. We make everything conditional on their utility and capacity as assets. We diminish the humanity we should protect. We fail at the most important fundamental thing: to be human. What makes us human as distinct from animals is our ethics and the ability to be kind. Kindness is a more cultivated version of empathy. Animals feel empathy. Your dog sees you sad and curls up with you. Elephants mourn. Animals have instinct and pure emotion. They are hungry and they attack. A human can pause. In that space, we translate feelings and work out how to apply them. We create kindness. We choose to relate. We choose to be good.
The problem with not accepting failure as part of a process — the necessary risk and efforts that allow us to grow — is that we then inversely or relatedly see a corresponding value in the act of accumulating measurable things like power, socioeconomic status, money, celebrity, education. In so doing, we become material things. Nothing more than things — you and everyone you love suddenly can be an exception in the right context and with the right incentive. We measure goodness and mete our forgiveness according to success. We measure bad behavior in discrete increments: maybe he raped someone that night in “bad judgment” but he is a good guy.
The problem is not privilege or entitlement or buzz words. It is worse than that. It is our acclimation to the idea that it is okay to base decisions on a cost-benefit analysis in a predator-and-prey, dog-eat-dog world. A world where people are utility. A world where opportunity is reason enough.
Thanks to Vania Sciolini, Kant and the Book of Life for their contributions.
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[Feature Image: A poster on a blue door. The poster has a picture of Brock Turner with the words in white saying, ‘My name is Brock Turner I am a Rapist’ Source: Steve Browne & John Ver]