What We Can Learn From The Swedish Stanford Students Who Stopped Brock Turner Sexually Assaulting An Unconscious Woman
In January of 2015, Stanford graduate students Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson were riding their bikes on the university's campus when they came across a man atop an unconscious woman behind a dumpster — and they chose to intervene. Today, we all know the attacker by the name of Brock Turner, just as we know that Arndt and Jonsson's heroic actions were instrumental in Turner's victim seeing any justice served (as farcical as Turner's six-month sentence is). In the face of this horrific story, there is much we can learn from the men who stopped Brock Turner — because, as the survivor of the assault pointed out in the letter she read to her attacker on the day of his sentencing, there are heroes in it. And since that isn't the case for the victims of the roughly 97 percent of rapists who go unpunished for their crimes, we should all be looking for what we can take away from Arndt and Jonsson's conduct.
Digesting the details of the case, it can be difficult to remember that there are good guys in this story. Headline after headline has focused not on Turner's three felony counts of sexual assault against his unnamed victim, but rather on his achievements prior to the crime. As though the fact that he was a really good swimmer obviates the need for prosecution or further scrutiny — or worse, as though it makes his crime lesser, or anything other than what it actually is. Judge Aaron Perksy, himself a Stanford alum, handed down a sentence of six months in county jail and three years of probation, citing the "severe impact" a lengthier prison sentence would have on Turner as motivation for the leniency. Never mind the "severe impact" the assault had on the victim. And then, of course, there is Turner's father, who penned a letter in his son's defense insisting that the sentence was "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action."
But in the midst of all of this sickening injustice, the victim's voice cuts through the din, reminding us that someone stood up for her so that she could then stand up for herself. Two someones, in fact. On that night, Arndt and Jonsson didn't awkwardly shift their gazes or tell themselves it was none of their business. How many others might have done just that at a college campus humming with activity well into the wee hours? We may never know, but these two chose to act, proving that there are indeed heroes out there. But more to the point, it's up to all of us to be such heroes.
The weight of Arndt and Jonsson's actions that night is staggering. As this case has so tragically illustrated, rape culture is alive and well, particularly in the collegiate world. According to a 2015 survey of 27 American colleges and universities, at least one in four female college seniors said they have experienced some form of sexual assault on campus. That is one in four women victimized on campus just among the graduating upperclassmen. And of course, the actual figure of sexual assaults on college campuses is often skewed. School administrations often offer little or no punishment, and the fact remains that a huge number of victims don't report their assault — something which they may avoid doing for any number of reasons, from fear of retaliation from their attackers to feeling like they simply won't be believed. Most of these victims, unlike Turner's victim, didn't have anyone intervene on their behalf, and may not even remember their assaults.
This cannot stand. We must do better by each other. When we see something that doesn't strike us as right, it sometimes seems easier to suppress that visceral reaction of discomfort in the pit of our gut and tell ourselves it isn't our concern. It's all of our concern, though. The fact that women and other students cannot walk around a college campus without the fear of being assaulted — and not have someone step in should such an assault occur — is simply unacceptable. We shouldn't have to prevent ourselves from getting assaulted — the point is always, always that people need to not assault other people in the first place — but at present, that's the culture we live in. And if we can't always be the heroes of our own stories, then it's all the more reason to try to be the heroes of each other's. Not for the credit, not for the notoriety, but because it's the right thing to do. Because everyone deserves to live in a world where they can feel safe. And to do that right now, we need to have each others' backs, and we need to be able to know that we have each others' backs.
In the case of Brock Turner, the fact that these two Swedish students did just that for the victim made all the difference. "I can't underestimate how important those two heroes were in this case. Those two heroes made this case a prosecutable one," Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Alaleh Kianerci told The Huffington Post. As Mic points out, their behavior is the perfect illustration of bystander intervention at work — a strategy to curtail sexual assault that relies, at its core, on witnesses intervening.
The bottom line? Speaking up does make a difference. It's time to stop sitting around wondering where the good in the world has gone and start being the good. Arndt and Jonsson have reinforced a very important lesson for all of us: Despite the lies we tell ourselves to quiet the nagging voices in our head telling us to step into uncomfortable situations, we can make a difference. We need only do something.
Image: Lauren Ellis/Unsplash