It is a sadly predictable facet of American life that whenever a high-profile rape sentence is handed down, the first instinct of many people is not to celebrate the triumph of justice or applaud the courage of survivors. Instead, their response is to express a desire for the perpetrator to be sexually assaulted in prison.
This revenge-rape fantasy was on full display after former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexual assault. The shocking part, however, is that it was Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge in Nassar’s case, who explicitly promoted this form of vigilante justice.
During sentencing, Aquilina stated that if the Constitution did not forbid cruel and unusual punishment, she “would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
In some ways, of course, the sentiments of the judge and legions of like-minded internet commenters are understandable. No person, even a judge, can be expected to remain unmoved by Nassar’s monstrous behavior toward hundreds of young women, and to the institutional indifference that allowed his abuse to continue as long as it did.
And yet, by sharing her hope that Nassar be raped in prison, Aquilina did more than breach judicial ethics. She undermined the very fight against sexual violence that she purports to champion — and utterly failed the young women whose voices she was trying to elevate.
Rape apologists have long drawn distinctions between people who deserve to be assaulted and those who do not. For centuries, rape victims have been told that they had it coming because of what they wore, or how much they drank or because of their sexual orientation. These same arguments are made about people in prison. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” as the saying goes, implying that you deserve — and should expect — to be abused while in the government’s custody.
Aquilinia’s defenders have pointed out that Nassar is a special case. This is true: The overwhelming majority of prisoners in America are not serial rapists of young girls, not to mention Olympic heroes. What’s the harm in carving out an exception for a hideous person like Nassar?
The obvious answer is that rape is wrong and unacceptable. Always. Period. Sexual violence against any person, in any setting, makes all of us unsafe.
Imagine if corrections officials responsible for Nassar’s custody were to take the judge at her word and “allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.” Does Aquilina really believe that a detention facility that condones the gang rape of one inmate would succeed at protecting others whose crimes were less severe?
Prisons where “bad” people get raped tend to be places where “good” people get raped, too.
You cannot condemn rape in one breath and then endorse it in the next. To do so is to promote the idea that there are places in the world where sexual abuse is OK, even encouraged.
Rape is never OK — not when the victims are young girls and not when they are hardened criminals. Not even when it’s Larry Nassar.
Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International.