In our fight against rape culture, we need to raise awareness of who commits rape and why all rapists deserve to be brought to justice, no matter their background.The trial and sentencing of Stanford rapist Brock Turner underscores this: Contrary to popular belief, rapists are not just strangers who leap from dark alleys to attack women. They legitimately come from all walks of life.
It should not surprise any of us, including court justices, that even affluent, talented, well-educated white men like Turner commit rape. And yet in Turner case, the judge who sentenced him seems to be suffering from cognitive dissonance, incapable of grasping that Turner is as much of a rapist as any other. In fact, in sentencing Turner, Judge Aaron Persky stated, “I think he will not be a danger to others.” This assumption seemed to be that Brock Turner was a good kid who made a bad mistake, rather than a legitimate rapist.
Yet Brock Turner is indeed a rapist who already harmed at least one woman, if not more. He should be punished for his crimes in the same way Persky would sentence other rapists from less affluent, less promising backgrounds.
It’s unfortunate that in this case, justice has been so inadequately served, despite the gains we have made in the fight against rape culture. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, second-wave feminists raised awareness of rape from a victim’s perspective, clarifying it as not just a “sex crime,” but an act of true violence. In 1990, 18-year-old rape victim Katie Koestner helped the world understand that women can be raped by the men they date. And in 2011, protesters launched #SlutWalk and made headlines for provocatively asserting that women are never “asking” to be raped, regardless of their attire, location, or behavior.
These efforts clarified that any woman can be raped, no matter what she’s wearing, even by an acquaintance. They also clarified that rape is inherently a violent act, rather than a sexual one. To this end, in 1994, after sustained activist efforts, the U.S. government passed the Violence Against Women Act, which mandated the treatment of rape as a crime. (Previously, it had generally been brushed aside as a private matter.)
Despite these gains, however, justice is hard to come by, as Turner’s trial and sentencing demonstrate.
First, he was handled with kid gloves: During his trial, Turner’s the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office protected his image. It was only after his sentencing that freelance journalist Diana Prichard succeeded in her fight to see his mugshot released.
Then, although Turner was found unanimously guilty on three charges of felony sexual assault, his sentence was ludicrously light. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to a mere six months in prison. This will likely be reduced to three months with good behavior. In sentencing him, Persky reasoned that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”
Clear-eyed people read those words and wonder: What could possibly be wrong Brock Turner’s life being severely impacted by a more serious punishment? In comparison to the 14-year maximum sentence he could have received, 6 months is an insult to his victim, her supporters, and rape victims everywhere. In fact, it sends the message that affluent white young men who happen to be student athletes can basically rape with impunity. (Note that more student athletes than the general population commit rape, but they receive less punishment.)
In sentencing Turner, Judge Persky weighed various factors. One consideration was a harrowing, eloquent, incisive, and profound statement that Turner’s victim read aloud and then made publicly available. (If you haven’t read it yet, please, read it now. Her voice and perspective are crucial.)
Another consideration was a bundle of letters written by Turner’s supporters, who appear to cling to outdated stereotypes about what constitutes rape. For example, Turner’s father asserted that his son “has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th 2015.” Meanwhile, a young female friend asserted that when Turner dragged his unconscious victim behind a dumpster and raped her, it was “completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists.”
These lines of thinking constitute a serious problem. Rape is not just something perpetuated by big scary men in dark alleys, or by guys who are pathetic and can’t attract women. The stereotypical rapists of film and television are not the only faces of rape. Brock Turner is also what a rapist looks like.
It’s outrageous that in the judge’s mind, the defense team’s ill-conceived, poorly-written letters seem to have trumped the victim’s eloquent impact statement. How could this have happened?
In considering the evidence and the various letters, Persky seems to have been unduly influenced by his own identification with Turner. As criminal defense attorney Ken White explained,
Judge Aaron Persky empathized with Brock Allen Turner and could easily imagine what it would be like to lose sports fame (as Persky enjoyed), to lose a Sanford education (as Persky enjoyed), to lose the sort of easy success and high regard that a young, reasonably affluent Stanford graduate (like Persky was) can expect as a matter of right. Judge Persky could easily imagine how dramatically different a state prison is from Stanford frat parties, and how calamitous was Turner’s fall.
This analysis reinforces my argument: To make further progress in our fight to end rape culture, we must make it much clearer that anyone can be a rapist, and all rapists must be treated equally in the judicial system. We cannot guess who is a rapist by looking at their relatives, their profession, their attire, their bank account, their skin color, or their hairstyle, and people from all backgrounds should be sentenced with equal severity.
This understanding needs to become so common, so widespread, that it serves as a deterrent to every would-be rapist.
Congressman Todd Akin was once held accountable for implying that only some types of rape are “legitimate rape.” His words sparked a national conversation in which we clarified that all forms of rape are legitimately rape, whether date-rape or acquaintance-rape or back-alley rape.
The Brock Turner case makes it clear that we must move that conversation forward. All rape is legitimate, and all rapists are legitimate rapists. Full stop.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.