5 Famous Moments That Changed The Conversation On College Sexual Assault
Last Thursday, former Stanford University student Brock Turner was sentenced to just six months in county jail after being found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object in January of 2015. He was handed this brief sentence despite the fact that Santa Clara County sex crimes prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci requested Turner be sentenced to six years in prison for his crimes — a sentence which was already a colossal step down from the 14 years in prison that Turner could have faced as a maximum sentence. While Turner's shockingly lenient punishment is infuriating to many, one thing's for sure: this case, and in particular the brave and heartbreaking letter than the woman who survived Turner's assault read in court, will undoubtedly become one of the moments that changed the conversation on college sexual assault.
The dialogue surrounding sexual assault and campus rape culture has only recently started to change ever-so-slightly for the better — after many years of colleges maintaining a shamefully negligent culture when it came to helping sexual assault victims and punishing the people who assaulted them. In February 2009, a study by the Center for Public Integrity reported that 95 percent of college sexual assaults were going unreported — a depressing statistic that the CPI thought may be partially tied to the disappointing response many people encounter from college administrators when reporting their assaults, as well as a larger collegiate culture that often blames the victim of assault.
This victim-blaming culture was all too evident in the case of Beckett Brennan — a former student and all-American basketball player for University of the Pacific. When Katie Couric interviewed Brennan back in 2011 about her assault — which allegedly occurred in 2008 at the hands of three male basketball players who also attended the university — Brennan said the case quickly became more about her behavior than the behavior of her attackers. Brennan told Couric, "So much of what they focused on was not the actual assault — tons of questions about how much I was drinking, a focus on flirting." Brennan also told Couric that she dropped the charges against her alleged attackers primarily because the detective on her case encouraged her to. Brennan told Couric, "He explained to me the system with cases that involve rape and kinda laid out the facts about it's a 'he said, she said' and kinda scared me."
So as upsettingly brief as Turner's six month sentence is, the fact that he was reported and punished at all shows that the way we talk and think about rape in this country is slowly starting to change (yes, typing that sentence was as depressing as reading it). Additionally, Stanford's relatively prompt investigation of Turner's crimes, followed by their banning of Turner from campus, plus the widespread media coverage this story has received and the public outrage it has ignited, has already made it clear that it will likely change the way we think about sexual assault on campus. Here are five other moments that helped change the conversation surrounding college sexual assault — moments that we still need to keep talking about.
1. Emma Sulkowicz' Carry That Weight
In the fall of 2014, then-Columbia-senior Emma Sulkowicz acquired national attention with her senior thesis project/political protest, Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight. In her performance, Sulkowicz committed to carrying the mattress on which she claimed to have been sexually assaulted until her alleged rapist was expelled from campus. This brave choice landed Sulkowicz in The New York Times and on the cover of New York Magazine, but the man Sulkowicz claims raped her was never expelled; instead, he was allowed to graduate alongside Sulkowicz, who carried the mattress across the stage during her graduation ceremony.
Although Sulkowicz and the two other students who claim to have been sexually assaulted by the same man didn't receive the justice they sought, Carry That Weight remains an important moment in the ongoing conversation on sexual assault. Carry That Weight inspired young women at over 100 universities to organize a National Day of Action in October of 2014 where male and female students alike carried their own mattresses in a show of solidarity for Sulkowicz. On that same day, Columbia students delivered 28 mattresses to the home of Columbia University president Lee Bolinger.
2. The Conviction Of Two Ex-Vanderbilt Football Players For Rape Of A Fellow Student
In 2013, four Vanderbilt football players were indicted for the gang-rape of a fellow student, but it took until January of 2015 for two of the four football players involved in the assault to be convicted. Despite ample photographic evidence of Brandon Vandenburg and Corey Batey laughing at and ultimately attacking the survivor, it took over 18 months for them to be found guilty of five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. On top of that, defense attorneys attempted to blame the campus culture of drunken, casual sex for the assault.
Perhaps even more disturbing however, is the fact that footage of the assault shows the unconscious survivor being carried away from a public setting while bystanders did nothing. This case, while undeniably infuriating, shed light on our society's tendency to place the well-being of attackers over that of the survivors.
3. Federal Title IX Investigation
Back in May of 2014, the U.S. Department of Education made history when it announced a groundbreaking civil rights investigation of more than 50 colleges and universities for their alleged mismanagement of sexual violence and harassment cases. Following the investigation, the U.S. Department of Education released its list of all the schools (a list that included many prestigious and Ivy League institutions) under review for violating Title IX, a law which states in part "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
This bold move pushed many universities to reform their sexual assault policies with the well-being of survivors in mind. For example, one school named in the investigation, Dartmouth College, revised its policy to include mandatory expulsion for students found guilty of sexually assaulting other students.
4. Yes Means Yes
In August of 2014, California state legislature approved a bill requiring all colleges and universities receiving state aid to make affirmative consent a part of their sexual assault policies. Yes Means Yes, which demands that all students acquire affirmative consent before engaging in sexual activity with each other, was the first bill of its kind. Since it became law in California, however, New York state has followed suit. As of last summer, affirmative consent is the standard by which all sexual assault cases in New York state colleges and universities will by judged by. Hopefully, in time, affirmative consent will be the standard for college campuses across the nation.
5. It's On Us
It's On Us, a celebrity-driven White House campaign, was developed in September 2014 to help students all over the U.S. learn how to recognize what qualifies as sexual assault. It's On Us works as a partnership between student leaders at over 200 colleges across the country, the Center for American Progress’ Generation Progress, several private companies including Tumblr, and college sports groups like the NCAA. Additionally, the campaign encouraged young men and women across the nation to speak up about any sexual misconduct they witness on campus, while simultaneously asking them to never take part in the victim-blaming of survivors. The program was created as part of President Obama's campaign against sexual and domestic violence, a program which has also involved creating the White House Council on Women and Girls and naming a White House Advisor on Violence Against Women for the first time in history.
Of course, we still have a very long way to go before sexual assault is treated with universal fairness on college campuses, or beyond. But it's good to know that more and more people and programs are declaring that there is absolutely never any excuse for sexual assault.