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Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors

Humiliation can always be used as a form of entertainment when coupled with a sense of moral justice. Even before Jerry Springer and Divorce Court, watching someone squirm could be appealing when well-deserved. After Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose, the definition of “schadenfreude” is public shame.

Shaming was seen as an effective way to rehabilitate when American society was less mobile. Since citizens were mostly confined to the same small towns they grew up in, disappearing to start a new life was far less common. Instead of prison time, ‘earmarking’ was common for thieves in the 17th century southern colonies. This practice involved slitting or punching a hole in the robber’s ear. Once permanently marked, the criminal was easily recognizable as well as punished and rehabilitated through humiliation. This prevented the criminal from “bribing the government”, by paying fines. Before America grew into an easily traveled territory, the justification of this justice felt practical. Small communities meant a lasting reputation.

The prison system, while not exactly public humiliation, has proven itself to be an island of American rights. Prison rape jokes are so common, the possibility of sexual assault is now assumed. Our obsession with the degradation can be seen from an outpouring of reality and scripted prison shows. Even when a prisoner is released, it may be difficult for him or her to vote, get a job or integrate into society.

In 2016 when Brock Turner was accused of penetrating an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, he was met with a swarm of media attention. The idea that a young, white, upper-class man would go to prison for sexual assault, however, proved too difficult for the justice system to treat fairly. Of course he would be raped, Facebook and Reddit seemed to scream.

The punishment for sexual assault in America is tricky. Even if there is forensic evidence, witnesses, and/or a history of abuse, prosecution is difficult at best. For many victims of sexual assault, performing a rape kit is more about their performance than the nurse’s. They must undress and display themselves for sometimes up to four hours. Their genitals are photographed, pubic hair combed, rectum swabbed and emotional state monitored. Many rape kits have not been processed, therefore proving themselves useless. The humiliation of a victim can feel worse than any justice they might find.

Even if a victim of rape does consult the police, there is no guarantee they will be treated in a dignified manner. Vice’s sister-site, Broadly, reported a case in which police officers laughed at a woman’s rape claim, saying “if I was getting raped I wouldn’t have stuck his d*** in my mouth.” Regardless of evidence, a victim must prove that he/she didn’t want to have sex for the legal system to intervene.

Perhaps this is why there has been a surge of public backlash against sexual assault. Since the #metoo movement, women can not only feel heard, but believed. Among essays of date rape and sexual harassment, the accusation made by Woody Allen’s daughter resurfaced, this time with an intensified belief from the public. The sexual assault cases surrounding celebrities seem endless. Bizarre masturbation incidents and hotel-boss experiences are viewed by the thousands, often multiplying throughout social media. “Writing Narrative Nonfiction About Sexual Assault, Abuse and Harassment” classes are offered online.

Through freedom of speech, the idea of innocence before proven guilty, is a muddled concept. Since humiliation is no longer the way we receive ‘justice’ anymore, publicly exposing someone doesn’t have the same validity as prison time. It’s not enough. Justice is now shaming when punishment is still just.

The new Lifetime documentary-series, Surviving R. Kelly, gets straight to the heart of American justice. Several people are interviewed. Among the interviewees, family members of R. Kelly, women who were assaulted, and families of the assaulted, are filmed. The series makes a devastatingly convincing argument against the innocence of R. Kelly, but also begs the question: whose voice counts?

When fairness comes into question, the solution is often gray. Is humiliation the only way to prosecute crimes that are acted purely in private? Unlike the criminal justice system, justice outside the law has a way of expanding one’s shelf life. Like O.J. Simpson whose legend was revived and then refitted into a more-recent culture, Michael Jackson’s documentary heads for an HBO release. In a society that treats equality with a wink and a nod, technology is making a come-back in old school justice.

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Rebecca Lee has written for a number of women’s publications as well as the Virginian Pilot. She currently works for Newfound Publishing.  

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