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Costa Rica: Sex Abuse Prison Sentence Raises Concerns About Justice System

[Note: All links in Spanish]

The sentencing of a 39 year old cabinet-maker to four and a half years of prison for sexually assaulting a woman during the daytime by touching her genitals in public has divided Costa Rica: some applaud this decision, while others believe it points to a failed justice system and a third group considers it excessive.

Opinions divided

The victim, a 25 year old bank employee, had her buttocks groped in a park, then was followed by the assaulter down several streets where he then lifted her skirt and fondled her crotch. The victim reported the assault and her attacker was placed in custody.

Image by Scott Akerman, Flickr user Sterlic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Scott Akerman, Flickr user Sterlic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With the testimony of several witnesses, including a woman who hit the attacker repeatedly with an umbrella and then kicked him after seeing him assault the victim, the judges considered that a four year prison sentence was a fitting punishment, but since he was under parole for illegal possession of weapons, six extra months were added.

Women and men in the Costa Rican social media sphere have expressed support for this decision and their full approval, and many of them have identified with the victim and have come forward to tell their own stories of the sexual harassment, abuse and disrespect they have received from men on the streets.

Echoes and support

In popular music forum 89dB, Angelica wrote “Look but Don't Touch“, about how she had her breasts and buttocks fondled in the streets by strange men, at a very young age:

Es lo más cerca que he estado de una violación. Aunque jamás podría equiparar esas experiencias a un crimen sexual en su sentido más vil, sí creo que fueron agresiones que merecían sanción. Se sintió aterrador, desde el hecho de verme sorprendida en los escenarios más cotidianos y en buena teoría seguros, hasta la frustración de presenciar con cuánta facilidad los antisociales lograban salirse con la suya.

It is the closest I've been to rape. Although I wouldn't dream of comparing these experiences to a sexual crime in its most evil aspect, I do believe they were aggressions that deserved punishment. It was terrifying, from the fact of seeing myself taken by surprise in routine settings which in all theory should've been safe, to the frustration of seeing with what ease these anti-socials managed to get away with it.

Ladybug77 commented on the post about how she explained to her boyfriend what the feeling of being inappropriately touched on the street was like, when he told her about how he was driving and the driver in front backed up, bumped his car and then just hit the gas pedal and left:

Y estaba, varias horas después, todavía con cólera, con ganas de ir a pegarle, de buscarlo, con chicha, con impotencia y la cabeza no paraba de darle vueltas al asunto… pero no podía hacer nada.

Yo lo único que acaté a decirle fue que esa sensación que el tenía de sentir que invadieron su espacio, de no poder hacer nada, de “por qué no dije, o por qué no hice…” era talvez lo más parecido que él iba a estar en toda su vida a lo que siente una mujer cuando algún viejo imbécil le toca las tetas o el culo en la calle…
Y aún así se queda corto!

And there he was, several hours later, still feeling angry, wanting to run after the guy and hit him, to find him, in a foul mood, feeling impotent and these thoughts were just going round and round in his head… but he couldn't do anything about it.

The only thing I could think of saying was that the feeling of having his space invaded, of not being able to do anything about it, the “I should've said this or I should've done that…” it was perhaps the closest he would ever be in his life to feeling what a woman goes through when an asshole touches her breasts or ass on the street…
And it would still fall short!

Marqoadrian adds a different perspective to the discussion: he describes a similar story to those above, but with the difference that he was a 17 year old boy who was sexually assaulted in a crowded public bus:

El mae bajó la mano y siguió viendo hacia afuera como si nada hubiera pasado. Tengo muchas fobias, soy muy miedoso y no dije nada. Me puse rojo y hasta se me llenaron los ojos de lágrimas. Me sentí tan solo, atacado e impotente que simplemente me quedé como un estúpido esperando que alguien me defendiera.

The guy put away his hand and continued looking outside as if nothing had happened. I have many phobias, I'm quite a scaredy cat and didn't say anything. I turned red and my eyes brimmed with tears. I felt so alone, assaulted and impotent that I simply stood there like an idiot waiting for someone to defend me.

On fairness and justice

Certain people are dissatisfied with the prison sentence: some believe that it mocks justice and points out a broken system where a man gets sent to jail for touching a woman inappropriately, but with other recent corruption scandals and crimes involving ex presidents or foreigners with money, the justice system refuses to hand out strong sentences.

Radio Fides, a local religious radio station asked on Twitter if people considered it “fair” to send a man to jail for touching a woman when more serious crimes go unpunished. On Facebook, they asked for feedback from followers, and the divided opinions were apparent on that single comment thread: people insisted that the woman had been dressed provocatively, others that the attacker was an innocent culprit now painted by the media like a pervert, some that it was surprising that other recent financial crimes or corruption had passed almost unpunished and yet another group stated that even though more serious crimes go unpunished, that doesn't mean this one should go the same way.

On her blog, Twitter user @titabobra replies to those who think that 6 months would've been enough of a sentence for the attacker:

Pero me tiene decepcionada el comentario de muchos hombres que lo consideran exagerado que con 6 meses bastaba, antes de escribir este post lo hablaba con mi mamá y ella me decía que los hombres que pensaban en que era una pena exagerada es porque o lo han hecho o son capaces de hacerlo ( a mi no me reclamen, la que estudio psicología fue ella) y también me decía algo muy fuerte, que lo mejor que le pudo pasar a ese señor (al condenado) fue que lo metieran en la cárcel, si se queda sin castigo, la próxima vez es capaz de violar a una mujer.

But it is disappointing to see the comments of many men who consider it excessive, that 6 months would've been enough, before writing this post I talked about it with my mother and she told me that those men who think it an excessive sentence is because they've done it or are capable of doing it (don't blame me for this, the one who studied psychology is her) and she also told me something very strong, that the best thing that could've happened to this man (the convicted one) was to be sent to jail, because if he had gone unpunished, next time he might have been capable of raping a woman.

These are some of the opinions seen on Twitter:

@_memex_:

Tribunal comprobó dádivas a Rodríguez por $819.000 y no esta en la carcel… y a un mae x tocar unas nalgas lo meten 4 años… chingo de ley

The Court proved gifts to [Ex President] Rodríguez for $819,000 and he's not in jail… and a guy who touched an ass got 4 years… shitty law

David Sibaja (@sibajad):

Tocar nalgas: 5 años de Carcel, robarse $8 MM: no tiene precio.

Touching butt cheeks: 5 years of jail, stealing $8 Million: priceless.

Manuel Quirós (@manuelqc12) also complains about the unfairness of the sentence, but has a more relevant point of comparison:

Ooook a un mae le dan 4 años de cárcel x tocar una doña… Pero otros las asaltan, violan y hasta algo peor y no les hacen ni papa…

OOOOOk, a dude gets 4 years of prison for touching a chick… but others mug them, rape them and even worse and nothing happens to them…

@chuckgtz:

Por tocar moñitos(jejeje)-4 años de cárcel, por traficar droga-Casa por cárcel. De verdad que la leyes en esta país son una mierda.

For petting a pussy (teeheehee)-4 years of prison, for trafficking drugs- Home prison. Really, laws in this country are shit.

Sexual harassment not perceived as a crime

Sadly, @Chuckgtz's opinion that sexually assaulting a woman is not a serious crime is somewhat common. Some men have expressed online that women getting groped or felt up by men is a normal and sometimes even welcomed situation, like Patote expressed in Costa Rica Forum by posting a picture of a woman in a miniskirt and writing “women are also guilty, sometimes you see things like this on the street.”

Pozuelo in 89dB believes that most women actually enjoy vulgar name-calling on the street:

A lo que voy es que cierto, muchísimos casos se dan con mujeres que no les agrada ni siquiera que les digan “uuy macha”… Pero hay otra gran mayoría de mujeres que les encanta que les digan que le chupan todo, que si esos chanchos comen guineo, etc etc etc…

To what I want to get at is that there are many cases of women who don't even like being told “wooow blondie”… but there is also a great majority of women who love being told that they want to lick them all, that if those piggies eat banana, etc etc etc…

David on the comment thread of @titabobra's post summarizes most of the perspectives she criticizes: he establishes harassment as part of the culture, he blames the women, suggest they enjoy sexual abuse and even states that making catcalling a crime would go against freedom of speech.

1984 in 89dB points out the common misconceptions about these crimes: that it happens to easy women in states of undress, or when their boobs or asses are larger than the norm, that those who commit sexual assault of this type are all hormone ridden young men and that the abuse only happens to women. And then adds an offhand comment to the fact that even the camera person of the TV news channel seemed to believe that making close up shots of the victim's behind would illustrate the real reason of why she was assaulted.

Jenny Cascante contributed to this post.

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