Trigger Warning: This article includes content of a violent and graphic nature. Please be advised.
Like many Americans, I was horrified as news broke in Santa Clara, California concerning State of California vs. Brock Allen Turner Case #B1577162. I was outraged. Insulted. Ashamed. This was the nation I lived in – a nation where a man admits to a crime while blaming his victim and culture-at-large, and against the wishes of a unanimous conviction by his jury, is given a reduced sentence by a fellow Alumni. It proves once again that privilege, that precipitous divide so heavily discussed in this election cycle in terms of myth and a symptom of laziness, damns the less privileged, the disadvantaged, and the victim of circumstance. More than anything else, I was disgusted. This was the nation where an admitted rapist could so glibly refer to his son’s crime – let’s name it. Rape. – as “20 minutes of action,” such a clear and obvious euphemism for sexual fun.
Rape is rape to me. There are no conditions of caveats that make it less of a crime. Rape violates the rules of the world my parents taught me to value, tearing at the fabric of the universe. It is a crime against an individual as much as a community. And, let me be clear as a sexual educator:
Sex without consent is rape. Full stop.
Rape is a crime. Full stop.
Crimes are subject to punishment commensurate with the damage. Full stop.
This is the foundation of justice in every other on our shared planet – “commit a crime, do the time.” Like many other individuals, I am quick to say that my rigidity on this matter has to do with personal experiences, with knowledge of close friends and family members who have suffered from sexual harm, violence, and trauma. I have heard too many stories on too many occasions of how sexual violence irreparably altered a life, robbing victims of joy, of hope, of a belief in something good in the universe. I say in broad terms that rape “tears at the fabric of the universe” because, for every individual who suffers from sexual harm, a perpetrator takes away something good and damages a life. I cannot find it in myself to equivocate on this. Sexual activity without consent is rape. Full stop.
In the matter of State of California vs. Brock Allen Turner Case #B1577162,
Turner was stopped by two Stanford graduate students from Sweden, Carl-Frederik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, who saw him sexually assaulting the woman as she was lying on the ground behind a dumpster on the university’s campus. He ran away and was tackled by the students, who held him until police arrived.
Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in jail, of which he is only expected to serve three months if he shows good behavior. He faced a maximum of 14 years in prison, and prosecutors asked for him to receive six years. The state probation office recommended less than a year in jail. Turner will also serve three years of probation and will have to register as a sex offender for life. He is appealing his conviction.
The judge’s decision has led to calls for him to be removed from office. While Dan Turner’s letter has received heavy backlash, the victim in the case has been praised for her powerful statement describing how Brock Turner’s rape impacted her. You can read the victim’s statement here.
As someone who reads, thinks, writes, and enjoys information on sex and sexuality, rape is a subject I do not readily speak on. It is the subject in sexual dialogue that always offers to consume me and give way to all of the tears I have thus far been unable to allow myself. It affects me. And in all of this, I am always aware: I am not a victim. I am not a survivor. And if I feel this intensely at a distance, I can only imagine with someone who has experienced rape must feel. This feeling is not unique. This guilt and shame mixed with fear and righteous indignation is not special. I don’t need to have my hand shaken or back clapped because, by saying this, I’m “speaking up.” I’m not a hero at all because I feel strongly about rape. In fact, in many ways over the course of my life I have helped support rapists, contributing to the culture of rape. Anne Theriault writes,
Rape culture is the idea that sexual assault does not happen in a vacuum, but rather occurs because we are socialized in a way that normalizes and even celebrates sexual victimization of women. In my experience, most men have a twofold reaction to that definition: first they’ll ask how it can be true that rape is normalized if rape is also understood to be one of the worst crimes a person can commit, and second they’ll swear that they, personally, would never. When they say these things they will absolutely believe that they’re speaking the truth.
Because of this indignation, many men – myself included – will be oblivious to the predator within themselves, quietly dismissing the recognition of evil with the familiar line, “There but for the grace of God go I.” In excusing ourselves and our fellow brothers, men take the side of the perpetrator. This is not to say that all men are guilty. It is saying that all humans, regardless of gender, are capable of both good and evil. And where we use ourselves as a rule to excuse someone else on the basis of gender, we become co-conspirators. We become complicit in their crime, shutting our eyes and ears to evil because we want to believe we, ourselves, and “good people like us” are incapable of evil. When we begin to peel back the curtain and look at reports on rape, the numbers are enough to numb us. A study conducted by the United Nations and released in 2013 revealed that
On average, about one in four men included in the study said they had raped someone at some point in their lives. One in ten had raped someone who wasn’t their romantic partner.
The UN study surveyed over 10,000 men from Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. The researchers caution that some regional attitudes about sexuality in Southeastern Asia may contribute to the results that they gathered across those six countries.
Still, we begin to see a consistent set of data, regardless of continent and culture. Researchers Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla, publishing in 1985, state that
85 percent (85%) of men defined as highly sexually aggressive had victimized women with whom they were romantically involved. A survey quoted in The Chronicle for Higher Education estimates that more than 20 percent (20%) of college women are the victims of rape and attempted rape. These findings mirror researched published several decades earlier which also concluded that sexual aggression was commonplace in dating relationships (Kanin, 1957, 1965, 1967, 1969; Kirkpatrick and Kanin, 1957). In their study of 53 college males, Malamute, Haber, and Feshbach (1980) found that 51 percent (51%) indicated a likelihood that they, themselves, would rape is assured of not being punished.
“Whatever the circumstances,” Theriault continues, “Brock Turner’s story [forces men] to look at their actions in a new light… And it’s so much easier to say neither of us are rapists than it is to say both of us are rapists.” This is the hurdle all humans must overcome – the potential for evil resides within all of us. John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, culminates with this idea; the temptation to commit evil, perpetuating cycles of violence, are always a decision away.
Rape is not an isolated event. It does not happen to “those people” who live “over there.” Carina Kolodny puts forward the very simple idea that rapists are among us. We must accept this and confront it. Rapists, potential and realized, are our sons and brothers, fathers, friends, neighbors, teachers.
Who are these “creepy men” and where did they come from AND who in the hell raised them? The answer, unfortunately, is YOU. We have too much information to continue blaming the anonymous man lurking in the shadows. We have more than enough data to conclude that the majority of perpetrators aren’t “others,” they are peers and classmates and ex-boyfriends and friends. They are young men your daughter probably knows and interacts with. You cannot build a wall up around your daughter to keep these men from entering her world — they are already inside it.
I don’t expect you to welcome this news. I doubt many will even accept it. I want you to know that I’m not saying all young men are rapists or disrespectful of women — and I’m certainly not saying that all young men are just hardwired that way. What I am saying is this: we live in a culture that puts victims on trial with questions like, “well, what were you wearing?” and “how much did you drink?” We live in a culture where a mother, concerned about raising sons who “act honorably,” holds young women accountable for the way young men objectify them. We live in a culture where a judge hands down a 30-day sentence to a rapist because his 14-year-old victim was “older than her chronological age.” We live in a culture that relegates not getting raped to women and girls instead of expecting and demanding boys and men to be responsible for not raping.
Your son is coming of age in that culture with those messages swirling around him. You might have raised him in a home that perpetuated that culture without ever intending to or perhaps you raised him in a home that taught values in complete contrast to that culture. The more important question is: did you ever directly tell him to never buy into that culture? Did you ever tell him that culture is unacceptable and WRONG? Did you ever have any of the aforementioned conversations?
Public discussion around the case has reached a fever pitch online, with bloggers and journalists equally outraged over Judge Persky’s sentencing. More than 806,000 Americans immediately signed a petition to set aside Judge Persky’s sentencing and for the State of California to immediately suspend him. That petition is still open as of the publication of this essay, approaching 1 million signatures.
Unlike many other “movements” of recent years, this was not a grassroots campaign. Those intimately connected with the trial spoke out, stunned by Judge Persky’s leniency. In his own statement issued after the sentencing, District Attorney Rosen said, “The punishment does not fit the crime. The predatory offender has failed to take responsibility, failed to show remorse and failed to tell the truth.” But in a statement released shortly after the petition to remove Judge Persky began to gain momentum, Rosen clarified his position. The criminal here was not the judge, it was Brock Turner. “While I strongly disagree with the sentence that Judge Persky issued in the Brock Turner case I do not believe he should be removed from his judgeship.”
According to Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber, “We need judges who understand violence against women. Judge Persky does not. He should be replaced. Hopefully a qualified woman will replace him.” Dauber, who teaches on the same campus where the crime was committed, was responsible for tweeting portions of the probation pre-sentence report containing a statement attributed to Brock’s father, Dan Turner, who pleaded for leniency, saying the verdict had “broken and shattered” his son. From here, more information began to slowly leak out. Brock’s father, Dan Turner, focused on the hardships Brock will now have to endure for his “twenty minutes of action.”
As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite. Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. I had to make sure to hide some of my favorite pretzels or chips because I knew they wouldn’t be around long after Brock walked in from a long swim practice. Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. The fact that he now has to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life forever alters where he can live, visit, work, and how he will be able to interact with people and organizations.
If the call for Judge Persky’s removal was the slow burn, the real explosion happened with the release of these open letters – one from Brock Turner, one from his father, Dan Turner, the third from “The Woman” whose name and identity have gone unpublished so far to protect her from retaliation. So much of this anger and lack of perception around this case is distilled in these letters, in their choice of wording and use of phrasing. As Anne Theriault, writing before the release of Brock Turner’s letter, notes:
Most of the discussion has centered around two letters. The first is the impact statement written by the victim herself, which she read out loud in court on June 2 and which was subsequently published by Buzzfeed on June 3. The other is letter written by Turner’s father asking for leniency in his sentencing; Stanford law professor Michele Dauber brought this one to public notice when she tweeted a portion of it. The former letter is as gutting as the latter is tone-deaf. The woman that Turner attacked speaks of what it felt like to wake up in the hospital with pine needles and debris inside her vagina. Meanwhile, Turner’s father laments that his son no longer enjoys pretzels, and argues he has been forced to pay too high a price for “20 minutes of action.”
As the week went on, the public was given access to more. Brock Turner’s letter to the court speaks of a confused admission – but not for the crime he had already admitted. Instead, Turner expressed that his crime was living excessively, imbibing from a culture that had corrupted him from his Olympic goals. His privilege oozes from every word as he claims, “I am the sole proprietor of what happened on the night that changed these people’s lives forever.” Apparently, rape is a business for him. The ability to change people’s lives gives him a sense of fulfillment. In his mind, he is still a “good guy” and in the mind of those who defend his actions that night, this was all just a misunderstanding – a “good guy” caught up in a bad moment, a product of his environment. In a way, he was a victim too. Good guys are considered awkward and strange, even weird, in comparison to overt predators in Pick-up Culture. As Melinda Selmys points out,
Brock Turner is probably not a monster. He is probably an ordinary college student who was involved in heavy drinking and pick-up culture. And what he did was rape.
I doubt that rape was his intent when he set out that night. But here’s the elephant in the room: we try to teach to young people that consent means sober, rational consent and that a person who is sloshed out of their skull is not able to meaningfully consent to sex; yet at the same time our culture insists that men women have the right to engage in promiscuous, casual sex if they choose to do so. The problem being that casual sex is almost invariably sex between two people who are drunk.
Seeking sex from strangers is awkward. Most people cannot do it sober. Every person I’ve ever known who has engaged in promiscuity used alcohol to lower their inhibitions. Also, sober strangers will generally not consent to a one-night stand. There’s a reason why the standard places that people go to pick up, and to be picked up, are places where alcohol flows freely.
Now, there are few things on earth less sexy than having a drunk stranger ask you if you would like to have sex with him. Most drunk guys (and drunk girls) understand this, so when people get together for a one-time tryst there is usually a pretext that nobody really intends to have sex, that everything is just progressing naturally, spontaneously. People are just having fun, seeing where things go. Questions like “Excuse me, but before you have too many drinks can I just ask if you consent to sex? Precisely which acts would you find acceptable?” don’t really contribute to a fun and sexy atmosphere — so they generally are not asked. Unless the other person specifically puts the breaks on, once the night gets going consent is assumed by default.
This means that people who are promiscuous will tend to develop a habit of getting drunk and having sex with other drunk people, generally assuming (rather than asking for) consent.
Drummer for the band Good English, Leslie Rasmussen, also joined the fray, writing an open letter of her own in defense of Turner, her childhood friend. She practically parrots him, writing,
I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him… Where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists.
DANGER ON CAMPUSES
This discussion of campus violence is an important one. Especially at Stanford. As Olivia Messer points out,
Stanford University reported a sexual assault every two weeks in the three years leading up to Brock Turner’s rape of an unconscious woman in 2015. The elite college reported 26 rapes on campus in 2012, 2013, and 2014, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, or about one sexual assault every 14 days. Then, almost exactly two weeks into 2015, another woman was raped on campus. On Jan. 17, 2015, Turner, a Stanford swimmer was caught raping the anonymous woman behind a dumpster when two eyewitnesses stopped the attack.
One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
Take a moment with that. One in four women that you know who attended college were raped. If you have a daughter, and she has 3 friends, one of them will be raped. Think about that. Let your conscience absorb that information.
This number comes from anonymous reports and campus surveys sampling college students nationwide and has remained the same since studies in the 1980s. According to The National Crime Victimization Survey counted 188,380 victims of rape and sexual assault in 2010. Another data source, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, counted nearly 1.3 million incidents that same year. Data from the FBI, which gathers its statistics on rape or attempted rape reported as a crime by local law enforcement, counted only 85,593 in 2010.
Coming back to Scully and Marolla whose work still tragically holds up after 30 years, “Using Law Enforcement Assistance Association and the Bureau of Census Crime Victimization Studies (excluding sexual abuse in marriage and assuming equal risk to all women, 20 to 30 percent (20% to 30%) of girls now 12 years old will suffer a violent attack during the remainder of their lives.”
This, we are to assume, is progress. This is what it means to “check” your fellow bros. This is what it means for institutions committed to the grooming of responsible adults to invest their resources and create “safe spaces” but not spaces that are safe. This is the nation we live in. Brock’s own admission of guilt reflects this distinction. “I made a mistake, I drank too much, and my decisions hurt someone,” he wrote in a letter to Judge Aaron Persky. “But I never ever meant to intentionally hurt [redacted]. My poor decision making and excessive drinking hurt someone that night and I wish I could just take it all back.”
The Woman, noting Turner’s wording, fired back. “Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk; the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately and run away.”
Turner admitted that he harmed someone – the trial was not about whether or not he did it. He did it. He admitted to it. Witnesses saw him do it. He recognized that he had committed a crime. He admitted it to the witnesses who detained him. He admitted it to police. He admitted it in court. The trial was not over whether or not he did it – he did it. Everyone agreed on this. Their disagreement was whether removing someone’s clothes and having your way with them – only stopping, mid-crime, when you were physically stopped by someone else – was actually rape.
This trial offers a chilling insight into the state of justice in America when everyone from the perpetrator to the victim, from the judge to the jury, all sides of the circumstance and everyone along the way agree that a crime was committed… and a trial is conducted to determine what “rape” really means. This trial went forward because, for Brock Turner, sexual assault was not rape and he wanted to avoid the stigma and shame of being called a rapist when he felt all he did was sexually assault someone. Even his childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen, rushing to his defense, called his crime “rape” as she corroborated with him and appealed to the judge, and to the public that although he raped someone, the victim was “a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank.” Because of the victim’s own inebriated state, Brock Turner should not be held responsible for what happened to the victim. The victim should let it go in the name of social equanimity. Indeed, Rasmussen continued, “Where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists.”
For Brock Turner, physical assault of an unconscious woman’s genitals, breasts, and anus was not “rape.” And apparently the judge in this matter agreed – setting aside a unanimous guilty verdict from the jury during sentencing because “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.”
But this is simply not true. The 2013 report from the United Nations mentioned previously uncovered that
Nearly half of the respondents who said they had raped at least once went on to rape multiple victims. Nearly 23 percent said they had raped two to three people, 12 percent say they had raped four to ten people, and about 4 percent said they had raped more than ten people. Here in the United States, some research has drawn similar conclusions about repeat rapists at the college level. A Harvard University study found that the young men who commit a rape in college are likely to become serial offenders — and many of them do, since lenient sexual assault policies on college campuses often allow them to evade punishment.
While The Woman will live with this trauma for the rest of her life, Turner will only serve six months in a county jail. He will be eligible for reduced sentence, even parole, in three months. Given Judge Persky’s leniency, it seems fair to predict that Turner will never accept the full scope of his crime.
In a letter to the court, Turner says his crime was “unintentional” because he had been drinking and, blaming student culture at Stanford, said his actions were due to “a culture of drinking, peer pressure and sexual promiscuity.” At all times, in Turner’s mind, the real crime was allowing himself to succumb to a distraction – drinking, the opportunity of an unconscious woman, his fellow students who led him astray. In his letter of admission before the court, Turner made a commitment to stop drinking. Nothing about pledging to resist violating other women, more women. Nothing about acknowledging, finally, that by violating another human body, he committed rape. Until the very end, his primary concern were his dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. His victim was nothing more than a potential threat to his own life goals, his own self-fulfillment. In many ways, for Turner, she was the criminal. She was the one seeking to rob him of a full life.
WHY MEN RAPE
Personally, it makes me mad as hell. This is why rape is such a difficult conversation for me to have – the lines are so clear to me. The anger so ripe, so full, demanding justice from the universe that – because of good faith in gatekeepers like Judge Persky to restore the balance, never comes.
But this isn’t about apologies. And it’s not about letters. In the end, it’s about some very fundamental questions. Why do men rape? Why do men protect one another in sexual crimes? Judge Aaron Persky and Brock Turner are now accomplices in a crime, as are Brock Turner’s tone-deaf father and all who would minimize the physical, sexual, and mental assault that Brock Turner committed that night because he was heavily influenced by “a culture of drinking, peer pressure and sexual promiscuity.”
In their landmark article, “Riding the Bull at Gilley’s: Convicted Rapists Describe the Rewards of Rape” from Social Problems, Vol. 32, No. 3, Feb. 1985, p.251-63, Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla answer that question. Writing in 1985, the researchers interviewed 114 convicted rapists between 1980 and 1981. That’s over 30 years, and still this essay is a touchstone for anyone trying to understand why rape is so prevalent in America.
Their interviews and presentation of material are staggering and far-reaching, confronting numerous generally accepted “facts” surrounding rape, ultimately determining 10 “rewards” or motivations for men who rape.
- Revenge and Punishment – The researchers pointed out that while there may be some offense that exist between the parties, a rapist might see his act as a ‘collective liability.’ In these instance, the rapist holds “all women” accountable for an offense where, “from the rapist’s perspective, the victim was a substitute for the woman on whom he wanted revenge.” Tellingly, “When they raped, these men were angry because of a perceived indiscretion, typically related to a rigid, moralistic standard of sexual conduct which they required from ‘their woman’ but, in most cases, did not abide by themselves.” In some instances, there was a strong religious, ethical or moral motivation for their crime, in others these types of rape were within a marriage or committed relationship. In many ways, this was the most personal kind of rape.
- An Added Bonus (to another crime) and Sexual Access (opportunity) – Many times, the rapist was in the middle of another crime or was simply in “the right place at the right time” to assault their victim. Scully and Marolla uncovered that 2 out of 5, forty percent (40%) of rapists were convicted of other crimes in connection with the rape. On top of their other crimes, “from the rapist’s point of view, rape [was] sexually motivated. Indeed, it is the sexual aspect of rape that distinguishes it from other forms of assault… The purpose of such rapes was conquest, to seize what was not offered.” In the midst of a robbery, for instance, it’s not a far step between taking an individual’s possessions and, seeing the person’s sex as a “possession,” taking that as well. One of the interview subjects described his victim’s sexuality in these terms. His victim, he said, was, “a real fox, beautiful shape. She was a beautiful woman and I wanted to see what she had.”
- Lust and Impersonal Sex – The researchers made an especially significant find, relevant to the popular trend of online dating and demotion of sustained relationships by Western culture. “The idea that rape is an impersonal rather than an intimate or mutual experience appealed to a number of rapists, some of whom suggested it was their preferred form of sex. The fact that rape allowed them to control rather than care encouraged some to act on this preference.”
- Power and Feeling Good – With the pursuit of self-empowerment also comes a dehumanization of the victim. Scully and Marolla noted, “When the men were asked to recall their feelings immediately following the rape, only eight percent (8%) indicated that guilt or feeling bad was part of their emotional response. The majority said they felt good, relieved, or simply nothing at all… Only two men out of 114 expressed any concern or feeling for the victim.” More, “a number of men volunteered the information that raping had a positive impact” on their self-image, esteem, and feelings.
- Recreation (boredom/something to do) and Adventure (thrill) – “Among gang rapists, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties when convicted, rape represented recreation and adventure, another form of delinquent activity. Part of rape’s appeal was the sense of male camaraderie engendered by participating collectively in a dangerous activity. To prove one’s self capable of ‘performing’ under these circumstances was a substantial challenge and also a source of reward. One gang rapist articulated this feeling very clearly [when he said], ‘We felt powerful; we were in control. I wanted sex, and there was peer pressure. She wasn’t like a person, no personality, just domination on my part. Just to show I could do it – you know. Macho.’”
We may never know, or even understand the events that transpired between Brock Turner and The Woman, but the epidemic occurring on college campuses deserves more attention, more understanding, and a high degree of justice that what is currently being administered. Since the first laws were committed to stone tablets and obelisks, humans have categorically rejected rape as a cultural practice. We must never stop pursuing the ideal of a society where these kinds of crimes are extinguished altogether.
- Stanford Had a Rape Every Two Weeks Before Brock Turner was Caught, by Olivia Messer
- The Conversation You Must Have with Your Sons, by Corina Kolodny
- Men See Themselves in Brock Turner, by Anne Theriault
- Brock Turner is Not a Monster, by Melinda Selmys
- Drummer Defends Stanford Student, by Sarah Maslin Nir
- Stanford swimmer says he didn’t mean to hurt sex assault victim, by Danicka Fears
- Students Want Stanford to Apologize, by Tyler Kingkade
- Why the Stanford Sexual Assault Victim is Remaining Anonymous, by Lydia O’Conner
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.