Those under the mistaken impression that life is fair would do well to read up on the Brock Turner case. Turner is a convicted rapist. As in, he raped an unconscious woman, behind a Dumpster, with witnesses. But he’s also a (former) Stanford swimmer, as well as one of the whiter white people around. For these reasons, he wound up with a kind of spa version of the rapist ringer: A blink-and-you’d-miss-it sentence from Aaron Persky, the case’s judge, and media coverage involving a wholesome headshot rather than a mugshot.
What mattered, though, was less the six-month sentence—as Stassa Edwards notes, the usual state of affairs is for rapists not to go to jail at all—and more the clear motivation behind the leniency. Persky was concerned that jail would not be a delightful place for this particular rapist; Turner’s father, on the other hand, appears to think that all rapes lasting under 20 minutes don’t count. Not to mention Turner’s childhood friend, who somehow managed to pin the whole thing on “being politically correct every second of the day.”
What’s missing here: the victim. In remarks reprinted on Buzzfeed, she eloquently explained how her life had been severely impacted by Turner’s assault. But until then, her voice had been treated as an afterthought. Outlets as varied as Reason, Flavorwire, and Teen Vogue referred to Brock’s “privilege” or “privileged background” as the source of the injustice. This was also Liam Stack’s emphasis in his New York Times coverage of the controversy:
In court, the victim had spoken out against the inequities of the legal process, arguing that the trial, the sentencing and the legal system’s approach to sexual assault — from the defense lawyer’s questions about what she wore that night to her attacker’s sentence — were irrevocably marred by male and class privilege.
It’s also worth mentioning white privilege; as Dayna Evans correctly pointed out, “the same mug-shot-hiding privilege would likely not be given to a person of color.”
Normally, when I see “privilege” referred to in a criminal-justice context, I cringe. Not because systematic injustice is imagined or unimportant, but because that’s not usually the most helpful term for addressing what’s actually going on. The expression suggests that it would be a better world if everyone were subject to police brutality, or if everyone with a drug problem were treated as criminals rather than patients. Or, more precisely, that’s the implication, if we’re assuming “privilege” is something that should be eradicated. This approach generally has drawbacks.
The Turner case, however, is one of the few situations where the term “privilege” is actually the most effective at conveying a specific injustice. It makes sense because what we’ve seen is a man who should have received a harsh penalty getting let off easy. The “privileged” situation here isn’t one that all of us ought to experience as a right. It’s an above-the-law status that has real victims. In an ideal world, everyone would be equivalently, severely punished.
The lesson is not that society needs to be more lenient with rapists who aren’t blond Stanford swimmers. It’s simpler and more general than that: Having a caste treated as above the law makes life genuinely worse and less just for others. It shouldn’t be that if someone especially talented assaults you, the accomplishments or promise of your rapist get taken into account above the assault. Nor should the fact that someone sure doesn’t seem like the cliché of the jail-inhabiting kind, racially or socioeconomically, be invoked as a reason that a person should be kept out of jail.
As for what’s gained by using “privilege” to describe this injustice, there are some limitations. I can’t imagine Turner or his ignorant father having a change of heart following a really useful explainer. But it is useful for the rest of us as a reminder, not just of how society operates, but of the genuine harm done when rules aren’t applied to all.