The statements of Stanford student athlete and rapist Brock Turner’s family and friends point to the poisoned atmosphere which helps prominent men believe they are entitled to rape, says Madeleine Holden. Trigger warning: this opinion piece addresses rape and sexual violence.
On January 17, 2015, Stanford student athlete Brock Turner raped an unconscious women behind a dumpster. In March this year, judge Aaron Persky handed down a six month sentence to Turner despite the maximum sentence of 14 years for three counts of sexual assault, saying that he thought “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him… I think he will not be a danger to others.” This, in itself, isn’t news: rapists avoiding jail time for their crimes is nothing new, and it’s not unusual for young, white male athletes from prestigious universities to be treated leniently by their schools and the legal system.
We may not even have known about this case, if it weren’t for the eloquent and deeply moving statement his victim read to the court, which has since gone viral online. The 23 year-old woman spoke in heartbreaking detail about the impact of the rape on her and her family, beginning with a punch-to-the-gut opening – “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today” – and continuing by detailing her gruelling treatment by defence counsel and the lingering impact of her traumatic assault.
It’s for this reason that an unusual amount of outrage has been garnered about this rapist and his sentence. Judge Aaron Persky is now facing widespread calls to be removed from his judicial position, and Brock Turner’s face is plastered all across the Internet – although most images are of him smiling, with a fresh haircut and clean-cut suit, rather than his actual mugshot from the night, which has recently been provided to the media.
In the face of widespread backlash about his sentence, Turner’s father issued a statement defending his son, arguing his life will be “deeply altered” by the court’s verdict and that “He will never be his happy-go-lucky self with that easygoing personality and welcoming smile.” Turner’s father went on to describe the worry, anxiety, fear and depression his son now faces, before stating that “His life will never be the one that he dreamt 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.”
20 minutes of action. That’s how Brock Turner’s father described his son raping an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. Action. As though it was harmless sexual fun – the kind young men are wont to seek out – and only 20 minutes of it, as if his son was cheated by having to face all these pesky consequences for a mere blip of a good time. That “good time,” of course, robbed Turner’s victim of her dignity and wellbeing and permanently altered the course of her life, too. The only difference is she had no say in it.
Mr Turner went on to say that his son should not be sent to jail because of his lack of prior offending, and also because “he has never been violent to anyone, including his actions on the night of January 17, 2015.”
Mr Turner’s comment here portrays a fundamental misunderstanding of rape. Rape is always violent, and it is always a violation. Turner’s victim was left with bruises inside her vagina and scratches and lacerations on her skin. Turner also left her with lasting feelings of despair, difficulty with trust, an inability to eat or sleep, depression, isolation, difficulty working, and continuing fear. Turner’s “actions” on the night of January 17, 2015 were violent, because that night, he raped someone. Rape is always violent.
Incredibly, Mr Turner went on to say that his son could become a role model for young people.
“Brock can do so many positive things as a contributor to society and is totally committed to educating other college age students about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity,” he wrote. “By having people like Brock educate others on college campuses is how society can begin to break the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate results.”
It’s disheartening, to say the least, that Mr Turner thinks the problem here is alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity, neither of which are the same thing as rape. The mention of drinking is a convenient scapegoat for Turner and his father, because they can point the finger at the victim, who was drinking – the implication being that she was partially to blame for her predicament, which she wasn’t. But the mention of “sexual promiscuity” is startling. It’s difficult to tell whether he is referencing the victim or his son here but, regardless, sexual promiscuity was not the problem on January 17, 2015. Brock Turner’s decision to rape an unconscious woman was the problem. This is not the man we need to educate our youth.
In case you think Turner’s father was a rogue influence in his life, his friend has come forward to blame the conviction on political correctness, and, bafflingly, said that “rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists.”
“This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot,” she said. “That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.”
Idiot boys, and girls. The implication is clear: idiots, these girls, for getting themselves raped because they drank too much; not like real victims, who are simply walking to their cars alone at night, before they’re whisked away by real rapists. Again, this statement betrays a severe misunderstanding of what rape is. Most survivors of rape are raped by people they know. Turner’s friend manages to stuff two damaging rape myths into one statement: the idea that women and girls contribute to their own rapes by drinking, and that rape that happens on college campuses or between acquaintances isn’t real, like stranger rape is. (Brock and his victim were strangers, for the record.)
This is how you raise a rapist. Mr Turner held attitudes about women, consent and entitlement that fed through to his son and helped to inform his behaviour. This became evident throughout the trial and sentencing, where Turner consistently betrayed a failure to grasp the severity of what he’d done and to consider the impact on his victim rather than just the adverse consequences he would face for his crime.
Mr Turner believes disturbing things about rape, “promiscuity”, drinking and college culture. At the age of 19, his son raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. It is, of course, impossible to know why exactly Brock Turner became a rapist, but one thing is for sure: the attitudes held by his father – and many, many other people – about rape aren’t harmless or isolated; they directly feed into how young men decide to treat women.
If you’re not convinced, there’s mounting evidence. A survey of 379 college-aged men revealed that, of the athletes surveyed, more than half reported coercing a partner into sex. Furthermore, those who reported coercing partners into sex – that is, raping them – were more likely to believe in rape myths (“If a woman doesn’t fight back, it isn’t rape,” for example) and hold traditional views of gender roles such as “Women should worry less about their rights and more about becoming good wives and mothers.” In short, believing common, dangerous ideas about rape and women’s roles is more likely to mean that you are a rapist.
This is a fairly logical outcome: the way we talk about rape – joking about it, and perpetuating myths about it – encourages rape and makes rapists feel secure in their attitudes and likelier to engage in coercive sex. However, it is still difficult to convince ordinary people that we should seriously reconsider how we talk about rape. Criticism of rape jokes is often dismissed as humourless censorship; a few years ago at Auckland’s Classic Comedy & Bar, an amateur comic who joked in his set that ugly women should be grateful for rape was given an award that same night for being a promising young comedian. When Ian Connor, one of hip hop’s most prolific stylists, was twice accused of rape by two different women on social media (two more have since come forward), someone dug up old tweets of his that demonstrated a disturbing belief that you can be owed penetrative sex for buying a woman something or giving her oral sex.
Connor’s defenders, though, said we shouldn’t use his old tweets against him. Why shouldn’t we? Why not factor in his own admitted attitude that you can be owed sex – an attitude about which he’s “as serious as can be” – when deciding whether to believe multiple women who say he raped them? We know that rape is depressingly common, we know that it goes unpunished most of the time, and yet when men are accused of it – especially famous or successful men – we adopt unreasonable levels of doubt to avoid believing their victims.
You don’t need to be a father to help raise a rapist. You only need to be an active participant in a culture that already treats rape alarmingly lightly. Rapists are around us, and they listen to jokes about rape and rape myths – ideas that women can dress or behave in ways that invite rape, that if they don’t fight and scream they must have “liked it”, that if they were drunk then they got what was coming to them – and they are fortified by them.
Real rapists are absorbing our cultural attitudes about rape, and then they are raping actual women. It’s not an academic exercise, and we have enough evidence to show that our dialogue around rape isn’t harmless or separate from the real world in which rape takes place. Perpetuating rape myths contributes towards a culture in which rape happens often and is punished little; a culture that believes, on some level, that men are bound to rape and women invite rape by acting in certain ways.
That is the real problem.