In January 2015, two bikers saw an unconscious woman on the ground behind a dumpster with a man on top of her. The man, Brock Turner, a student athlete at Stanford University, was detained later that night and convicted in March. His sentencing on June 2 provoked national outrage when the district judge gave him a mere six months in county jail and three years probation. The judge’s reason: “A [lengthy] prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.”
The judge took into account the fact that Turner had lost his scholarship, been the subject of critical media attention, and even went as far as to say that “there is less moral culpability attached to the defendant, who [was] … intoxicated.” Apparently, in America today, athletic excellence and being drunk is a shield against justice. This is not only morally reprehensible—it’s simply fraudulent jurisprudence. Consequences defendants deal with as a result of a case cannot be a factor in their punishment.
The victim stepped forward powerfully, addressing Turner directly in a blistering and impassioned 12-page rebuttal that addressed not only him, but also our justice system and how it perpetuates a dangerous and pervasive rape culture. She details how she was treated during court, saying, “I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half-naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
Bravely stepping out of silence to denounce a broken system, her experience shows why so many women and girls remain silent; she was portrayed as a sloppy, drunk co-ed engaging in a purely consensual, albeit stupid, act. Rape, especially on American college campuses, is portrayed as more of a mistake than as an assault. It’s never the aggressor’s fault—the victim’s short skirt was too alluring, the fact that they were too drunk to say no meant that they would have said yeas—and worst of all, “they were totally asking for it.”
This specific event is, unfortunately, not singular: according to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, one in four women will be raped or assaulted while in college, many of whom will stay silent. And even when victims report assaults, they can be met with incredible skepticism, harassment, and overt degradation. Stanford University, in its handling of this case, seems to have taken a step forward on this front—it quickly turned over the case to local authorities, banned Turner from ever stepping foot on campus again, and conducted a thorough investigation. However, other universities have not been so exemplary in addressing sexual assault reports.
Systemic problems call for systemic solutions. What is required is a shift in the culture surrounding sexual assault, and the overwhelming show of support for the victim in this case shows that the tides may be turning already. Consent must be understood to not only be a frivolous accessory to sexual activity but a required pillar. The only way a person can ever ask for it is to actually ask for it; a look in their eyes or the fact that they were sending vibes can no longer suffice; in fact, it never should have.
Finally, let’s consider the “severe impact” of this assault, and of any assault. Victims, as this one put it, “[want] to take off [their] body like a jacket and leave it.” Not only are they harmed physically, but also in their psyches, their very being. Brock Turner will not know what it feels like to want to abandon his body, his very being. The repercussions of that night will affect him for six months, but they will never leave his victim.
If there is no consent, it is rape. This simple maxim seems to be lost when women report incidences of sexual assault; instead, the character, behavior, and excellence of their rapist seem to take precedence. An assault is something that victims will never forget—and neither should we.