Rape cases like Brock Turner’s are fueling a rise in online vigilante justice by necessity

Women should not have to go outside the legal system to find approximations of justice.
Women should not have to go outside the legal system to find approximations of justice.
Image: Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department/Handout via Reuters
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It’s hard to imagine it now. But under most circumstances, the world would never have known about Brock Turner.

Turner, a former swimmer at Stanford University, was sentenced on June 2 to just six months in county jail for brutally raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. His crime, and a California judge’s decision to give him what is effectively a slap on the wrist, has become a flashpoint for a widespread discussion about rape culture in the US. US vice president Joe Biden has weighed in with his support for the victim. The House of Representatives will discuss it this week.

The outraged response to Turner and his crime can be attributed largely to a harrowing letter read in court by his victim, which subsequently went viral after being posted on Buzzfeed. It is striking that one woman’s blunt, honest and powerfully written account was able to spark an outpouring of compassion on her behalf and fury at a system that perpetuates and enables violence against women. Yet it is also discouraging that it is an exceptional circumstance for the world to so roundly condemn a rapist, and readily believe a victim.

For the most part, our culture continues to downplay or ignore sexual assault. Every day, we hear people suggesting that rape is a minor thing, or an innocent misunderstanding, or consensual, or “twenty minutes of action.” In such an environment, it is no surprise that a majority of victims will not find justice within the legal system. And so they will be forced to create their own approximations of justice outside of it.

The Stanford victim, a 23-year-old identified as “Emily Doe,” describes going to a party and waking up in a gurney, bleeding, covered in pine needles, and missing her underwear, with trauma to her vagina that indicated a foreign object had been inserted by force. She didn’t know she had been raped until the doctors told her so, and found out the full details only when they were leaked to the press.

“I refrigerated spoons every night so when I woke up, and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see,” she writes. “My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed. I can’t sleep alone at night without having a light on, like a five year old, because I have nightmares of being touched where I cannot wake up, I did this thing where I waited until the sun came up and I felt safe enough to sleep.”

The details are horrifying. It’s clear this was a knowing, calculated, and savage attack. Six months in jail is a joke. But it’s also more jail time than the vast majority of rapists ever see. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that 97 out of 100 rapists do not face a single day in prison. Only 46% of rapes are even reported to police. Of those, only 5% lead to a successful prosecution and conviction.

There are millions of women who have gone through the exact same trauma as the Stanford victim and received even less support. They don’t have Joe Biden writing them letters. They don’t have hundreds of witches hexing their rapists. They don’t have successful social-media campaigns aimed at pressuring police to release their rapist’s mugshot. Most victims don’t have sports organizations banning their rapists for life, or music festivals canceling appearances by their rapists’ defenders.

Make no mistake: It is remarkable that so many people have come together to ensure that Turner faces real consequences. But these responses are also, by necessity, vigilante justice. The criminal justice system, which was meant to give the victim redress, utterly failed to do so. Now people are taking matters into their own hands, with all the messiness that implies. This is not the most desirable outcome. It is not the safest or fairest outcome. It’s simply the only outcome that many survivors, and those who support them, are able to get within our current system. We should not have to do these things. It should not be impossible for victims of violent crimes to receive justice in a court of law.

Even as the Turner case was breaking, another online community was taking independent action against the well-known computer security and privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum. Multiple women in the tech community have accused Appelbaum of sexual assault, setting up an entire website to collect victims’ stories. The website, its creators explain, was a point of last resort:

“People have tried lots of things, including speaking directly with Jake and asking him to stop,” they write on the website. “People have talked about his behavior inside the infosec and internet freedom communities for years, and have tried many strategies for making it harder for him to victimize people. People have complained inside the Tor Project and been dismissed (until now, of course). Jake’s behavior has been an open secret, in some circles, for years. He has still kept doing the same things.”

Applebaum, who denies the allegations, did not respond to a request for comment. He has stepped down from his job as a developer at the internet privacy nonprofit Tor Project in response to the accusations. But he will continue to live as a free man. This means that, if the allegations against him are true, he will be free to hurt more people.

One of the major problems inherent in the criminal justice system’s failure to deal with sexual assault is that most rapists are serial rapists. Regardless of your feelings about prison—and there are many compelling arguments against it—there’s also a clear and present danger in teaching convicted offenders like Turner, or alleged repeat offenders like Applebaum, Bill Cosby, or James Deen, that they can and will get away with their crimes. If there are no consequences for victimizing people, there is no reason not to keep doing it.

There is something profoundly moving in how many people have come together, in sorrow and in empathy, to make sure that Brock Turner never lives down his crime. And there is something powerful and radical in women’s ability to join together on social media and create the kind of justice that the system so routinely fails to provide us. But the problem is much larger than Brock Turner. It’s about all of the other Brock Turners: The ones who never went to court, never saw jail time, never made the news. The ones whose names and faces we never knew. If they came to us, out of the darkness, we would not recognize them.