Brock Turner was released from the Santa Clara County jail in California on Friday after serving just three months of his six-month sentence for felony sexual assault, as predicted. As he walked out the doors of the jail, 21-year-old Turner was met with angry chants, protest signs, and at least one disgusted law enforcement official. “We don’t know who picked him up or where he's going, but we’re done with him,” Santa Clara County’s sheriff, Laurie Smith, told reporters. “He should be in prison right now, but he’s not in our custody.”
When Turner returned to his house in Sugarcreek Township, Ohio—home of the parents who said he was just a “shy and awkward” teen looking to fit in and who worried that he’d lost his appetite for steak after his arrest—more unfriendly demonstrators awaited him. Their signs read “Castrate all rapists!” and “If I rape Brock Turner, will I only do 3 months?” Someone had chalked “shoot your local rapist” on the sidewalk. As if to bring credence to that threat, some of the protestors outside the Turner home carried assault weapons slung across their chests.
It's a beautiful day in Brock Turner's neighborhood, it's a beautiful day in his neighborhood 🎶 pic.twitter.com/09RJzIjcIO— basedlighty (@basedlightskin) September 4, 2016
It’s easy to understand the impulse behind these protests, spurred by the injustice of an unrepentant man evading prison time after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The survivor’s eloquent account of the dual indignities of being brutally assaulted then questioned in court left no doubt that Turner got off easy for his crimes. Absent any discernible evidence of remorse from Turner or justice from the courts, people are trying to make sure he pays, somehow, for the damage he’s done.
But the ghastly implications of these protests are not justified by their intent. No occasion warrants applause for assault rifles carried openly on the sidewalk in a nod to vigilante violence. Guns are neither an appropriate nor an effective response to the rape culture that produced Turner and his jail sentence. The open-carry protests edge dangerously close to an erroneous argument advanced by gun-rights advocates, who claim that guns make women safer and the only way to stop rape is to practice better self-defense. Not only does this argument ignore the real problem—rapists and those that embolden, enable, and apologize for them—but it runs counter to statistical proof that more guns mean more killing of women.
The calls to castrate rapists exhibit a similarly misguided take on the causes and manifestations of sexual assault. Many perpetrators of sexual violence, including Turner, do not use their penises in their assaults. Some jurisdictions still define rape under the limited parameters of penile penetration—that’s one reason why Turner was convicted of sexual assault, not rape, and why demands for media outlets to call Turner a “rapist” have not been met. The idea that rape must involve a penis makes other forms of sexual assault seem less serious and does a disservice to survivors whose rapists don’t have penises or didn’t use them to violate their victims. In fact, tying rape to sexual desire at all betrays a clouded understanding of the crime: Rape is not about uncontrollable desire; it’s about power and control. This is why rape is so often used as an instrument of war, sustained abuse, and humiliation. It’s more often a product of misogyny, toxic masculinity, and entitlement than of irrepressible male libido.
The protest outside Turner’s home is the latest example of a weird sort of cognitive dissonance that has recently emerged among progressives around issues of criminal justice. Certain strains of conventional left-wing wisdom—sex offender registries do more harm than good, the prison system is wack—get discarded when it comes to sexual assault cases in a kind of overcompensation for the many, many rapists who’ve gotten off with no conviction or other form of accountability for generations. Progressives are working hard to humanize incarcerated people and incarcerate fewer people because they realize that the system is biased and broken, but in response to Turner’s case, they passed a new mandatory minimum bill in the California state legislature that will certainly affect poor men of color more than white college athletes like Turner. Absent any other tangible, immediate opportunity for feel-good positive change, protesters who aren’t calling for rapist castration have focused their efforts on unseating Aaron Persky, the judge who sentenced Turner—an irresponsible attack on basic values of judicial independence. Even victim impact statements, like the kind Turner’s victim read him in court and published on Buzzfeed, have been roundly criticized as violations of due process; in Turner’s case, we let it slide.
This all seems reasonable now, as it applies to Turner, because he’s an unsympathetic character whose unearned privilege got him a gentler punishment than has been delivered upon countless perpetrators of much more trivial crimes. But relinquishing hard-fought ideals of justice and evidence-based lawmaking when it feels good and deserved will come back to haunt us. The next time someone wants to assert his bogus right to march around with an assault rifle demanding vigilante justice against a less deserving target, these photos from outside Turner’s home will make a marvelous defense.