One way to tell the story of Cyntoia Brown is this: Brown was 16 when she went to the home of a man who was paying her for sex. When she thought that he was going to kill her, she shot him.
Another version is that she shot him as part of a robbery. While he was sexually assaulting her, though this version of the story tends to leave that out.
Another way is to tell it like this: Brown, a child, was being sexually assaulted, because all sexual contact between an adult and a child is assault because children cannot consent to sex. None of the adults who were supposed to protect her did so, and other adults repeatedly took advantage of that lack of protection to exploit and harm her. She killed one of them in defense of her own life.
Either way, the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier this month decided that she has to remain in prison for at least 51 years. That’s with “good behavior.”
The answer is about who is a “good” victim. It’s about race, and it’s also about gender.
Gun marketing tells us to be afraid and that guns will make us brave. Men are told to use guns to protect their women and children–with the implication that women need to be protected from sexual violence, in particular. Women are told to buy guns to protect themselves from would-be rapists. In other words, we’re supposed to “stand our ground” and use lethal violence if faced with the threat of rape.
This fear isn’t just used to sell guns but to sell an expansion of gun culture and gun rights. In their efforts to push more states to allow conceal and carry or even open carry on college campuses, gun fetishists appeal to fear of sexual assault against women.
Above, a poster for a campaign to bring guns to campus. A white woman stands with her arms crossed, a gun in one hand, staring at the camera. The text says, “At 18, I am legally an adult, can vote, join the Army, raise a family. Yet the law denies me the means to protect myself till I turn 21.”
But when we do? A lifetime sentence in prison.
Liam Neeson’s “Very Special Skills” speech in Taken (which Esquire calls “perfect craftmanship“) gets to the violence that is permitted when women and girls are sexually threatened. Here, his character is speaking on the phone to his daughter’s kidnapper
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.
Sure, Neeson is a super tough guy, but, for me, there is a sadness in his speech that’s real; even the manliest of men can’t fully protect their wives and daughters from the bad things.
But here, in Taken, he CAN protect his loved ones. And he’ll engage in car chases and fistfights to do it! And, yes, he will kill. Because one of our favorite stories in film and fiction is of men who use violence to protect women from would-be rapists.
And yet, in real life, we punish women and girls, like Cyntoia Brown, for doing what we cheer imaginary people on for when we want to sell guns or see movies. Why?
Why do we say we care so much about preventing sexual violence against women and girls but then punish or ostracize them when they are harmed? A few ideas:
- We don’t really care about women and girls. We care about the idea of virginity (which isn’t really real), which is to say that we value women and girls as sexual objects for men, that we still think about women’s worth as being tied to whether they are suitable future sexual partners for men. Women who have not been sexually assaulted are suitable future partners and should be protected; women who have been sexually assaulted are not and so are not worth protecting.
- We manage the reality of sexual violence by blaming victims for what they have suffered. Just World Theory is our belief that the world is fair–because recognizing that it is not at all fair means recognizing that we are in danger. We ignore the danger by blaming victims of life’s unfairness for what they are suffering. We blame sexual assault on a woman’s clothing or her drinking or her choice to go into a man’s home because it is too terrifying to say that anyone could be a victim of rape as long as rapists choose to rape.
- We punish individuals because we cannot take account of our collective failure to protect vulnerable people. It is easier to punish Cyntoia Brown than to admit that we have a system that fails poor children.