Last week, Santa Clara County voters elected to recall county Judge Aaron Persky, who is best known for his sentence of a male college student to just six months in jail for sexual assault in 2016. That student was Brock Turner, whose high-profile case drew national attention, including recognition from politicians across the United States.
The bulk of Turner’s case took place in early 2016. It was a trial rife with victim-blaming interrogation, including humiliating inquiry about his victim’s diet and weight; outrage over Persky’s preposterous reason for giving Turner such a short sentence (he was concerned a longer sentence would have “severe impact” on Turner, as if Turner’s assault of an unconscious woman did not have “severe impact” on her); and then, suddenly, it was all over. Turner served only half his sentence before walking out a free man. His story — a harrowing commentary on racist double standards and societal trivialization of sexual assault — seemed to fade from our national consciousness.
But as we learned last Tuesday, just because we weren’t paying attention, didn’t mean nothing was happening. One Stanford University professor spent the past two years organizing and leading a mass effort to recall Persky. Her work alongside a coalition of survivors and allies is a true testament to the staying power of the broader #MeToo movement, especially on college campuses, and its dynamic ability to catalyze change in every sphere of society.
#MeToo first emerged late last year in response to the systemic sexism and abuse that has disenfranchised women across many industries and walks of life. If anyone were seeking evidence more tangible than a viral hashtag, they need look no further than the efforts of Stanford law professor Michele Dauber.
Even if her campaign had not resulted in a 59 percent vote in favor of recall, it nonetheless accorded sexual assault survivors in her community a voice and means to take action. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, more than 90 percent of survivors of campus sexual assault do not report their experiences to authorities. Experts say that many choose not to come forward due to fear of blame and intimidation.
And as Judge Persky’s decision reveals, rape culture is about more than blaming or disbelieving women. It’s also about neglecting to take women’s pain and trauma seriously, and prioritizing the male experience at the expense of survivors.
For instance, Turner’s victim, called Emily Doe, brought far more evidence to the table than most survivors ever could. Witnesses testified about seeing Turner commit the assault behind a dumpster — they were even the ones who called law enforcement — and DNA evidence incriminating Turner was collected immediately. In the vast majority of sexual assault cases, the only evidence survivors can really provide is their own testimony. To have as much evidence as Doe and still face what she did sent a clear message to other survivors in 2016.
And today, in 2018, the recall of Aaron Persky sends an equally clear — but very different — message.
The successful campaign to recall Persky is a reflection of everything that #MeToo has dedicated the past year to fighting. It is a movement for gender parity, respect, justice and accountability — not only on Capitol Hill and in Hollywood, but also on college campuses and in our legal system. Beyond that, #MeToo is a movement founded upon a basic and unrelenting demand for tangible reform. That’s because words, memos, press releases and ad campaigns fall flat in the absence of concrete action.
#MeToo has broken an age-old cycle. Specifically, men in positions of power who have abused or enabled the abuse of vulnerable victims are starting to lose that power. In Hollywood, we witnessed the long-awaited arrest of Harvey Weinstein last month.
At USC, we witnessed the announcement of University President C.L. Max Nikias’ resignation due to the University administration’s handling of a sexual misconduct allegation against a former campus gynecologist. And last week, we witnessed a judge whose 2016 decision told survivors everywhere that avoiding “severely impacting” a convicted abuser is of higher priority than according justice to survivors.
Across the country and around the world, justice for women and survivors remains unfinished business. But the successes of #MeToo show that we’re headed in the right direction — a monumental direction. It’s a direction that says talk is cheap, and actions and accountability speak infinitely louder than words.