In case you were worried this week might pass by without offering an example of how rape culture insidiously operates even in the judicial system, the recent sentencing of a rapist charged with a crime almost three decades old should be enough to fire up your rage.
In 1990, Robert John Hall raped a woman at knifepoint. It was the woman’s first night working as an escort, and Hall had arranged to meet her in a motel room. After paying her $200, he forced her to the ground and blindfolded her. She was sexually assaulted twice over the next half an hour, being raped both orally and vaginally with Hall telling her, “I paid the money now you just lay back there and I can do whatever I f—ing want”.
At least once during the assault, Hall threatened to kill her.
The woman reported the sexual assault later that night, providing DNA samples from her vagina to local police. They closed the investigation later that year, and it went cold until a petty crime in 2007 brought Hall back to the attention of law enforcement.
Still, it would be another three years before a DNA match was discovered between him and the 1990 rape, and another three years before he would be charged.
Throughout his trial, Hall refused to accept responsibility for his choice to rape the unnamed woman. He maintained his claim that the “sex” was consensual.
Despite his cavalier disregard for the consequences of his actions, and despite the fact a jury found him guilty in November of two counts of “threatening with a weapon to inflict bodily harm to coerce sex and two counts of sexual intercourse without consent”, the sentence handed down to him by District Court judge Peter Whitford carried only a maximum term of five years with a measly one year non-parole period.
In explaining the sentence, Judge Whitford argued Hall had reformed himself over the previous three decades.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by despair and electrifying anger whenever we are confronted by the reality of rape culture in the judicial system.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Whitford acknowledged the trauma experienced by the victim and also the gravity of the crime committed by Hall. Judge Whitford also noted that no punishment other than imprisonment was appropriate, because of the nature of the crime.
And yet, he also observed that Hall’s family had “suffered greatly during the legal proceedings” while Hall had “presented as a medium suicide risk”. He cited Hall’s “devotion” to his family, noting he was “idolised” as a father and grandfather.
Excuse me, but just why are we affording leniency to a perpetrator because of the psychological damage his actions have wreaked on his family?
But perhaps the most disheartening of Judge Whitford’s remarks came by way of his view that the assault itself was “of relatively short duration” and that sentencing must be considered based on “any identified trends and the practice at the relevant time”.
Indeed, in his closing statements, Judge Whitford reiterated that it “does not represent an appropriate sentence for such offences committed today, or in the more recent past”.
So why does the law insist on sentencing retrospective criminal behaviour in this way? Victims of sex crimes forced to wait decades for adequate response shouldn’t be further insulted by watching as their abusers are treated with vintage leniency.
Yes, there are circumstances in which the passage of time coupled with the actions undertaken by perpetrators of crime can be argued to amount to rehabilitation, but this generally has to involve the recognition of fault and a willingness to engage in a system of restorative justice.
Focusing on Hall’s life now, well-rounded as it sounds, merely serves to cement the idea that the men who perpetrate sexual violence deserve more of an opportunity to rebuild their lives than do the women they assault.
The emphasis on men’s individual potential is a standard feature of rape culture, both in sentencing and public dialogue, while significantly less attention appears to be paid to the thwarted potential of women traumatised by rape.
And it isn’t a stretch to suggest that this deference to men’s needs (particularly when their victims are sex workers) compounds the belief among many women that it’s seen as our job to absorb the impact of men’s violence, rather than have the system help us to deflect it.
One of the best-known recent examples of this is in the Brock Turner case, the Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside an on-campus party.
In that case, Turner’s defence team argued that consent had occurred, while his father offered a character testimony that stated his son shouldn’t be punished for “20 minutes of action”.
The sentencing judge in that case (which obviously accords to California law) determined that the rich, young, white perpetrator before him wouldn’t “fare well” in federal prison, and handed down a paltry six-month sentence (he was out in three) to be served in the county jail.
Those of us who question sentences like this are often told that this is just how the legal system works. That the judges are only interpreting the law as it stands, and therefore it’s not only pointless criticising it, but is offensive to call their integrity into question.
My response to that is to ask where the law came from. Who decided that this was how sex crimes would be handled, and that they should be judged based on sentencing trends from the time of the offences – as if sexual assault was somehow less traumatising in 1990 than in 2017?
Who determined the parameters around sentencing and non-parole periods, or suspended terms? It wasn’t us, that’s for sure.
Robert John Hall raped a woman at knifepoint and went on with his life as if it never happened, choosing even now to deny his guilt and the impact he’s had on the life of his victim.
Yet we are to accept he is “rehabilitated”, simply because he established a life for himself that secured him familial happiness, professional satisfaction and a good standing in the community.
As if sex offenders are never found to have these things in spades.
These laws weren’t handed down from a higher power. They were largely written by a class of white, privileged men of certain backgrounds and, where judges are concerned, they are still largely enacted by that same class of people.
Protesting this isn’t an act of disrespect (and I acknowledge that Judge Whitford has extended his sympathy and support to Hall’s victim); it’s a concerted and vital attempt to bring the voices of women to a system that has historically excluded us, while deciding on our behalf what constitutes appropriate reparation for the harm caused to us.