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Prison time can be an effective deterrent.

For victims of sexual assault, the gender of the people in charge could make a huge difference in the sentencing of assaulters.

According to RAINN, an American organization dedicated to fighting and informing about sexual violence, someone in America is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Despite such high numbers, only 6 out of every 1000 rape cases reported will end in incarceration. And that’s only 1000 — there are thousands of sexual assault cases that go unreported.

But why?

These days, people are equipped with smart phones that can capture a moment anywhere. Quite a few instances of assault are caught on camera, but that doesn’t mean that any action will be taken. Look at Bishop Charles Ellis III, for example, who was very publicly filmed groping Ariana Grande’s breast at Arethra Franklin’s funeral. Yes, people got upset but, as of now, he’s just apologized and moved on. 

The lack of apparent accountability isn’t just in cases with visible evidence of the act, though. Take, for instance, one of the most infamous assault cases of the decade — Brock Turner’s rape trial. 

Turner, who ended up with a six-month jail sentence and three years’ probation, was found on top of an unconscious woman by two bikers next to a college party. The woman woke up much later in the hospital, unsure of what had happened.

Everyone has heard Turner’s father’s desperate plea for his son; he pronounced that “20 minutes of action” wasn’t worth any kind of jail time. To me, that’s incriminating enough to take action.

But Judge Aaron Persky thought otherwise. No, this adult man did not see intercourse with an unconscious woman as anything too awful — in fact, he decided to take Turner’s word for it that the woman had given consent. The status of her consent after falling unconscious (and at some point ending up outdoors, away from the people of the party) apparently remained active in Persky’s eyes. 

Consent, to Persky, must be a once-and-for-all sort of thing. Ask most women, and they will fervently disagree.

But Brock Turner’s case isn’t the only one where a very obvious case of sexual assault (after all, Persky does believe the sex happened, and knew that the victim was unconscious) gets shoved under the rug by a male judge. 

Once a beloved star, Bill Cosby is now a household name for other reasons. The former actor is awaiting sentencing for three sexual assault charges against Andrea Constand.

The convictions were seen as a huge movement forward toward sexual assault rights, and many people felt gratified by the prospect of a celebrity being sincerely punished for acts of sexual violence. But, there are two sides to every story, and this one might not end up great as desired.

It goes back to Cosby’s male judge, Steven T. O’Neill. Based on prior rulings and statements, O’Neill may end up being more lenient on Cosby’s sentencing due to the rapist’s age and good attendance record. 

Another big issue with the Cosby trial is how the defense team may try to appeal the guilty verdict, which could end up with Cosby not serving anything.


Bill Cosby, center, arrives for his sexual assault trial, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The appeal would come from the fact that five other Cosby accusers were allowed to testify in court along with Constand, a decision that some see as “guilt tripping” the jury, or putting too much emotional baggage onto the case. 

But who would think that having even more evidence — albeit anecdotal — would make the jury too prejudiced? In my eyes, that should only give more credence to the accusations against Cosby, and should show the real danger of not taking action against sex offenders — that they will do it again to someone else. 

The argument for leniency in these cases seems to be because the judge has some sort of pity for or belief in the accused. In Turner’s case, the judge considered his youth and his lack of a prior record. In Cosby’s case, the judge considered his advanced age and his track record when it came to keeping bail. But if both the young and the old are not to be held accountable, then who is?

Everything seems to boil down to gender. After all, most spots in America’s judicial system are filled by cisgender men. Not many recent studies have been done pertaining to gender and sentencing, but one study by Christina L. Boyd in 2016 acknowledges a large variance in decisions made by women and men in judicial positions.  

People tend to expect women to be more compassionate to the pleas of other women, but that isn’t the end of the story. Female judges are known to pursue harsher sentences all around, which isn’t always a good thing by any regard, but they are also more likely to see the trouble with issues of consent simply because they live with the heightened fear of such events happening.

It’s difficult to find current cases in which a female judge delivered a sentence to a male accused of sexual assault . Looking up such stories usually yields results that include gender studies of courts from the 1990s, but none recent enough to prove a point.

With such little data to work with, the debate is still going on. Female judges could rule more harshly against perpetrators of sexual violence simply because of their connection to female victims, but no one really knows for sure. However, it’s plain as day that many male judges are ruling laxly on male offenders because of their own gender connection.

The dialogue surrounding the difference between men and women in such situations will continue, and while the dispute is specific to its abundance of sexual assault statistics and cases involving cisgender people, there’s another important discussion going on about cis male victims, transgender victims and rulings that are skewed by racial prejudice. 

The world of law is a complicated, messy place, but it’s clear that mixing up the inherent white cis maleness of the courts could help to even the playing field. And, while different issues have different solutions, instituting more women judges is a good first step to equalizing sexual assault cases against women. 

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Abby Hall

Hollins University

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