The latest college rape headline comes out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where 22-year-old Austin Wilkerson was found guilty of the sexual assault of a first-year semi-conscious student. Though he faced a possible 4 – 12-year sentence, the judge instead gave him two years on work release.
These repeated instances of inaction on the part of our judicial system rely on an outdated “boys will be boys” mentality that a sexual assault is a momentary lapse in otherwise good behavior and that a second chance is all a rapist needs in order to rehabilitate. But the ugly truth is that victims of sexual assault do not get a second chance at a life without the burden of such a trauma.
Moreover, court records show that this assault was the culmination of an evening of escalating assaults on boundaries this woman had set with Austin Wilkerson, not a one-off instance of poor behavior. Wilkerson repeatedly made advances on his victim at the party prior to the assault and called her a f***ing b**** when she repudiated those advances. Later, when she was clearly incapacitated, Wilkerson indicated to peers that he would look after her and be certain she made it home safely.
Judge Patrick Butler shared his concern for the kind of treatment Wilkerson might experience in prison. He stated, “Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”
And how might we find that out? Wait for Wilkerson to rape again?
And then count on it being reported by another victim who is likely only too aware of how these cases are treated in our criminal justice system? Rape is among the most underreported crimes in our nation, largely because of judicial inaction and the public shaming survivors undergo during the process. The letter written by the Stanford rape survivor is a meaningful reminder of how harrowing that experience can be.
Wilkerson’s actions throughout the night of the assault indicate premeditation, not a lapse in judgment that should be treated with a “wait-and-see” approach. Does Judge Butler believe that punishment should only be meted out to proven serial rapists, that every college rapist gets a freebie?
The statistic of 1 in 5 college women experiencing assault in their undergraduate years is familiar to most people by now. Here’s another college statistic many have not have heard:
college-aged rapists commit an average of 5.8 rapes each. That’s an average, not the upper limit.
Where, on the continuum between 1 and 6 does a rehabilitated, good enough assailant fall for Judge Butler? How many scarred first-year college students are we okay with?
Many colleges and universities are beginning to take this problem seriously in the absence of meaningful judicial action by exacting their own disciplinary measures, which is an encouraging development. But as long as assailants continue to get the message that they’ll get a pass the first time they are caught, women can empower themselves to fight back: how about offering every assailant a trip to the hospital instead of jail?