JUST "TWENTY MINUTES OF ACTION"
After some time spent processing, i.e. cooling off, I decided it’s time to weigh in on the Stanford campus rape case. For those of you who missed the weeks of media saturation, a little background: In January 2015, two Stanford University graduate students discovered Brock Turner, Freshman standout swimmer and Olympic hopeful, assaulting an exposed and unconscious woman behind a dumpster on Stanford’s campus. Turner tried to run, but was held by one of the bystanders and arrested. He was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, with a potential sentence of fourteen years in prison. His sentence? SIX MONTHS in jail. Yes, that’s “months”. (Note: He likely will serve three; literally a summer in jail.)
Here’s the thing. Between my undergraduate degree, and two graduate programs, I spent nine years on college campuses. As a woman. While there, my studies focused on sexual assault, violence against women, and societal perceptions of violence against women. I worked in women’s shelters. I spoke with college students who had been raped. As a lawyer, I witnessed sexual assault case verdicts: Some verdicts seemed just, and some did not. So you wouldn’t think this case would catch me off guard. Seen the full spectrum of behaviors, perceptions, opinions and outcomes, right? But it did. It really did.
So what was it about this case, just one of the many – too many – campus rape cases that occur every school year, that got to me?
• Brock Turner is framing this heinous brutal crime, and the consequent public conversation, as a “drinking and promiscuity” problem. Partying, drinking, having sex. That’s what college kids do. That’s what happened here. The problem was not violently forcing himself on an unconscious woman, the problem is the campus social drinking scene. He was the victim. He was just a naïve Midwestern boy who had little experience with alcohol and struggled to fit in with the cool kids.
• Brock Turner is still blaming his victim. By making this conversation about drinking and “promiscuous sex” on college campuses, he is saying that they were in it together. He insisted that she “enjoyed it”. She was unconscious, private body parts publicly exposed, covered in dirt – inside and out. She enjoyed that.
• Brock Turner has not expressed remorse for anything other than drinking. Following his conviction he vowed, "I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed." Nowhere in his statement does Turner accept responsibility for the attack, but suggests that the media unfairly targeted him because of his swimming career.
• Brock Turner pleaded not guilty, lied, and put his victim through the harrowing and humiliating process of trial. Ok, as an attorney, I understand and support the need to force the State to prove its case – every time – and fervently protect the rights of those accused of crimes. This defendant, and his supporters, abused these protections for the sake of preserving his image, at the expense of the victim’s well-being. They used her unconscious state to Turner’s advantage (again), claiming that if she couldn’t remember, Brock would just have to “fill in the details”. Insult to injury.
• Brock Turner’s enablers and apologists perpetuate the victim-blaming rape culture mentality.
Turner’s Dad. Dan Turner’s letter to the judge so offensively missed the point with a series of “poor us” complaints. He bemoaned the fact that his son no longer enjoys his steaks, won’t be able to swim in the Olympics, and has to register as a sex offender. At no point in his statement does he express sympathy for the victim, or recognize the magnitude of his son’s crime. In fact, his conclusion is that a prison sentence would be unreasonable and extreme for “20 minutes of action”. Any parent can sympathize with the pain the Turners must feel. But Mr. Turner’s blinders to his son’s culpability indicate the likely source of the problem: a lifetime of entitlement.
Turner’s Childhood Friend. Her letter to the judge on Turner’s behalf … I can’t even paraphrase, so here are her words [MY EMPHASIS ADDED]:
“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. [THAT, AND THE TWO WITNESSES WHO CAUGHT HIM ASSAULTING AN UNCONSCIOUS WOMAN.] I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. [NOT “DIRECTLY”, BUT STILL BLAMING.] But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists. [WAIT, WHAT?] This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. [IT IS; BOTH ARE EQUALLY CRIMINAL, BUT AT LEAST ONE HAS A FIGHTING CHANCE.] That is a rapist. These are not rapists. [IN OTHER WORDS: “YES, THESE GUYS RAPE WOMEN, BUT LET’S NOT CALL THEM RAPISTS; THAT’S SUCH A LOW CLASS WORD.”]
• Brock Turner received a shockingly short jail term – too short to serve purposes of punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence or reparation – which was handed down by a judge who shares a similar pedigree with the defendant. Judge Aaron Persky, a former Stanford lacrosse player, predicted “a prison sentence will have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.” What about the impact on his victim? Isn’t a 20-year old convicted rapist, by definition, a danger to others?
• Media continue to characterize the details of this case in a manner not typical of rape case coverage. For months, even after conviction and sentencing, all we saw was a clean cut smiling school photo of Brock Turner. Unlike most people convicted of sexual assault, Turner’s booking photo (mugshot) did not appear anywhere online. The booking photo finally surfaced after several news organizations, including the Washington Post, called for its release. Also, media sources repeatedly refer to the parties as “rape victim” and “former Stanford swimmer”. Using these terms, she is defined by the crime, and he is defined by his status and accomplishment.
• Brock Turner reinforces the daunting statistics: One in five college women will be sexually assaulted. The overwhelming majority (somewhere in range of 75-85%) doesn’t report these crimes because they don’t think anyone would do anything about them. Schools often protect offenders, especially when the offenders are athletes. Would this victim have been one of those non-reporters if the Good Samaritans hadn’t stepped in? Sadly, statistics indicate she likely would have been.
In trying to figure out what gnawed at me most with this one, it seemed to come down to one word: MINIMIZATION. The outcome, the statements, the coverage … all point to an act that was presented as little more than an error in judgment. An out-of-character evening for an all around great kid. “Twenty minutes of action.” That’s a hard phrase to shake. Even if it was not meant in the sense of sexual conquest, the phrase is demeaning, degrading and dismissive. The violence of a crime is not ranked by time spent in its commission. This victim is forever changed. An entire gender is disrespected and diminished. The efforts to end campus violence are stalled, if not regressed. All for twenty minutes of action.