One of the first things I did when I started at CCASA for the first time, four years ago, was attend a sentencing of an offender that had sexually abused a young boy; he was around 14 years at the time of the abuse and the offender around 17 or 18 when he sexually abused this young boy. The exact details of the trial have long since left my mind and what’s left is only the brutal truth of the case: a young boy, a soccer player, was sexually abused by his coach who received a single year in jail.
One year for sexually abusing a young boy, it seemed unjust to me, even back then. But what really got me about the sentence was the comment by the judge that accompanied the sentence, something along the lines of “…because you’re a good person…you only get one year.” This sentencing had already shattered a few myths I had about sexual violence, the main myth being my views on what a typical sexual assault offender looks like; specifically a child sex offender. While I did believe that an offender could be anyone, I certainly subscribed to the belief that you could spot offenders; that they’d meet some level of visual creepiness that somehow matches their crime. One look at the offender and my expectations/myths were gone; he looked average, like someone I would have gone to school with (actually looked like a few people I knew over the years in the school system).
“Because you’re a good person, you only get one year” this is the statement that sticks in my head and to this day it makes no sense to me: good people do not sexually abuse children. Good people tip fairly well, they donate money and time to charitable causes, and genuinely care about the well being of others. Good people do not sexually abuse children. Yet most of the time we hear of a crime of sexual abuse or sexual assault, we hear how the offender had positive attributes: was “such a good person,” “a stand up member of the community,” “a great athlete,” “had so much potential,” how “they loved to be around children/or were so good with them” (you don’t say…). With the aftermath of the Steubenville trials we were witness, yet again, to an absurd amount of offender sympathy towards the sexual assault offenders such as how the poor boys lives were ruined, how their football careers will be affected, how this young girl was to blame for what they did, and so on. As I read all the sympathy pouring out for these offenders I couldn’t help but think of the sentencing I attended all those years ago and a thought crossed my mind.
One year for sexually abusing a young boy. One year. It had been 3 years since I attended the sentencing. The offender has now been out and about for 2 years and I can’t help but wonder about the survivor. Did the survivor and their family feel the year was enough? Were they just satisfied to have some kind of justice? How did they feel the day the offender was released? I can only hope that they did feel some kind of justice from the sentence (minus the “he was a good guy” bit from the judge) because, after working at a sexual assault centre, I know that the impact on survivors of sexual abuse or assault is most often painful and long term with many lasting and deeply rooted impacts.
So what do we do with Steubenville, why did I even bring it up? Because I think we need to step back and start considering the impact on the survivor. Part of me, sadly, doubts that she feels any sense of justice after what happened. During the course of the trial she was treated as the offender, the one who caused all the problems; she was the villain. Then once the sentences were handed down she was again vilified, this time for “ruining” the lives of these poor boys offenders with “her actions.” Jane Doe was sexually assaulted repeatedly and by more than one person. The evidence was spread throughout her community and she was “slut-shamed” by her peers, her neighbors, her teachers, school coaches, and by strangers to no end before the trial even began. I wonder how she’ll feel two years from now when the men who assaulted her are out on the street again and living successful lives. It’s a hard thought, one that I don’t feel like I should dwell on. Instead I will focus on her strength, the strength she had to go through the court system even with all of the people she had working against her, judging her for doing nothing wrong in the first place.