We Can't Keep Ignoring Survivors' Stories

On March 30, Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer, was convicted of three felonies: 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. A few days later, Judge Aaron Persky (who campaigned for election on a platform of locking up sexual predators) sentenced Turner to a lenient six months in county jail because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

As a Stanford graduate, I was horrified to hear the victim’s statement — how two other students caught Turner assaulting her behind a dumpster — but I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that the punishment would be minimized. When sexual assault or rape occurs on college or even high school campuses, people often tend to empathize with what the rapist will lose by being punished, rather than what the victim has lost and will continue to lose by having been raped. This is especially true if the rapist is a promising athlete. And at Stanford, the athletic stakes are high, with many students (including Turner) aiming for the Olympics.

Situation like this have happened so many times that Amy Schumer can spoof it. Again and again, society tells us that what matters is sports scholarships, Heisman trophies, a school’s NCAA rankings. What doesn’t matter: sexual assault, rape, women’s lives.

But this time, though the victim remains anonymous, we’re getting her side of the story in a way we usually don’t, through the powerful statement she read to her assailant in court. It may be too late for her words to change the outcome of her own case, but they might just change the conversation around campus rape.

It argues that Turner’s entire life shouldn’t be altered for the things he did in a mere 20 minutes, as if the victim’s entire life hasn’t been altered by the same 20 minutes.

If you were looking for instances of people valuing a young athlete over the person he assaulted, it would be hard to find a better example than the letter Brock Turner’s father wrote to the judge asking that his son receive probation instead of jail time. It cites Turner’s academic and athletic success, as if they had any bearing on the crime. It also downplays Turner’s responsibility, blaming “the culture of alcohol consumption … modeled by many of the upperclassmen on the swim team” for their “role in the events.” It claims that Turner did nothing violent, though the victim describes “abrasions, lacerations, and dirt in my genitalia.” It argues that Turner’s entire life shouldn’t be altered for the things he did in a mere 20 minutes, as if the victim’s entire life hasn’t been altered by the same 20 minutes, through actions she didn’t even commit. (By this same logic, shouldn't murderers walk free because it only takes a second to shoot someone?)

In an almost comically insensitive conclusion, Turner’s father mourns that Turner can no longer enjoy “a big ribeye steak” because he’s so depressed about being on trial. Meanwhile, the victim’s statement describes how after the assault, she could no longer function at work, sleep without lights on, go to parties involving alcohol — the list goes on. But Turner’s father wants the judge to really think about that steak.

And it’s not just Turner’s father who feels this way. A (female!) friend of Turner’s wrote a similar letter of support to the judge decrying the “politically correct” nature of the trial. “Where do we draw the line … and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists,” she writes. “It is because these universities market themselves as the biggest party schools in the country. They encourage drinking.”

I admit that I graduated a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure Stanford hasn’t pivoted its marketing strategy from “extremely prestigious university full of Nobel laureates” to “party central” in that time. I don’t remember the school encouraging us to drink; I remember mandatory education sessions in freshman dorms in which we passed around “beer goggles” and were warned that riding a bike while intoxicated is against the law. As I recall, those sessions also involved lessons about safe, consensual sex. (I have vividly awkward memories of the educator explaining why “pussy-whipped” was a sexist term.)

Perhaps the most offensive thing about these letters to the judge is that the attitudes they exhibit are not unique. We’ve seen these excuses with other campus rape cases, and we’re seeing them again now. This is one more case in which we’re asked to empathize with the damage that justice will do to a sexual predator’s life over the damage that injustice has done to a victim’s life.

But in this case, we have something we usually don’t have: a long and compelling statement from the victim in which she eloquently conveys her side of the story. The horror of waking up in a hospital without underwear, with “dried blood and bandages on the backs of my hands and elbow.” What it felt like to learn by reading a news article that she was found unconscious and almost naked behind a dumpster. How dehumanizing it was to go through a trial in which she was asked what she wore that night and told that she actually enjoyed the experience. Significantly, she relates how all this will continue to affect her for the rest of her life.

As shocking as the lenience of his sentence may be, Brock Turner’s conviction is a moment of possibility. Even if he only spends six months in jail, we’ll always have every heartbreaking word of the statement by the woman he assaulted. We can continue to link it and share it and read it out loud the next time this happens, and the next. We can tell everyone, “Look. Her life is just as important as his. Empathize with her.”

It's true that the prison system and the sex offender registry are in dire need of reform, and they doubtless will “severely impact [Turner's] life,” just as they’ve severely impacted the lives of so many other people who didn’t have the good fortune to be young white athletes at prominent schools. But when I try to put myself in his shoes, I think back to my time at Stanford, during which I was ostensibly surrounded by this irresistible drinking culture which supposedly has an almost mystical ability to bewitch you into doing horrible things to your fellow human beings. Somehow, I managed not to drink much alcohol at all. And when I did drink, I never felt the urge to assault anyone.

Of course, as a woman, I was more likely to be assaulted than to assault. And I have been assaulted, once. It was a long time ago, and it was much less severe than what Turner’s victim went through, but I still remember the intensity of the shame I felt, how I didn’t tell anyone for almost 10 years, how painful it was that certain people didn’t believe me when I did tell. I’m past it now, but in some ways, it will stay with me forever.

It didn’t happen at Stanford, but it chills me to think that if it had, most people probably would have sided with my assailant — because that’s what often happens when people rape people on college campuses, and elsewhere (remember the sympathy so many felt for the men convicted of assault during the Steubenville rape trial). We’re typically asked, by the media and many of our peers, to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who committed the assault, not the survivor's. We’re asked to let the rapist keep his education, his reputation, his future, when those are the very things he’s irreparably altered for the person he raped.

Images: Wikimedia Commons