Eleanor Doward

What message can we take from the Stanford student sexual assault case?

Brock Turner, a 20-year-old Stanford student, was convicted recently of three counts of sexual assault including intent to rape an intoxicated person. He was sentenced to just six months, though the maximum is 14 years. He is expected to serve just three months. This high profile case, covered by media across the world, sent out a mixture of messages to women, students and survivors.

One of these messages is that if you are rich, white, male, straight, cis and privileged, you can apparently expect better treatment from the judicial system and from the majority of the media. Turner, as the victim said in her incredible statement, hired powerful lawyers who delved into her love life and past to try and find a means to excuse Turner’s actions. Many have criticised the judge, a Stanford alumnus and lacrosse captain during his time there, for handing out such a lenient sentence because he sympathised with Turner – also a Stanford student, and swimmer. One of Turner’s friends wrote a letter to the judge claiming that not all rape that happens on campus is due to rapists. The images of Turner shown on the news showed a clean-cut and smiling student; the mugshot of him in which he looks rather more threatening was not used. His swim times were listed in the same article laying out the details of the assault.


It’s entirely grim, and it’s enough to make anyone feel powerless. I can’t begin to imagine how the constant excuses – each more feeble than the last – made for this man affected the victim. The judge said a long prison sentence would have a ‘severe impact’ on Turner’s life and that he ‘will not be a danger to others’. He made no reference to the letter signed by 250 Stanford students urging for at least the minimum sentence outlined in state law. The message sent out by the lenient sentence given to Turner is that particularly women in the area, but also women everywhere, should not feel safe. While statistics show that sexual assault on campuses is rife, this sentence says victims will not be protected if they are assaulted. They may as well not even report it, because their perpetrator, if they are successfully sentenced, won’t see the inside of a cell for long. Instead, perpetrators will be protected. Their promising futures will be considered. Never mind the impact on the victim, never mind the fact that their world has been turned upside-down; what a travesty that Turner can no longer enjoy his rib-eye steak. What a shame that, every time he tucks into a bag of pretzels, he no longer eats them as star-swimmer student but as a sex-offender.

If you are as privileged as Turner, you are absolved of nearly all responsibility, it seems. Almost treated as a loveable child to be slapped on the wrist and sent on your way, because you didn’t know what you were doing, not really, and everyone knows you’re actually a sweet guy, so how can you be a rapist? Even if you tried to rape someone?

But there’s another message to take from this, too. This case produced the most moving, harrowing yet inspiring victim statement I have ever come across. I couldn’t finish it without crying both at the sadness and the pain behind the words, and the hope and solidarity the incredibly brave victim offers. The message we can take from the victim’s statement is a powerful one. Her resilience, her constant hope and bravery in the face of trauma is a message to women and to survivors of sexual assault in-and-of-itself. But what’s more, she explicitly says it. She tells survivors they are not alone, that she is with them. And we in turn should all be with her. What with the injustice she was shown both by a perpetrator who continues to assert that he did nothing wrong besides having too much to drink and a judge who protects him with a lenient sentence, thereby endangering women students everywhere, her voice of reason stands out loud and clear. She has ignited a spark, and it is up to us to fan the flames.

This is already happening. A petition to recall Judge Persky has received over 800,000 signatures and a website set up to recall him has received nearly $36,000 in donations. Thousands of people are sharing images of Brock Turner’s mugshot rather than the clean-cut pictures. While Judge Persky believes an absurdly light prison sentence is the ‘antidote’ to the ‘poison’ of the intense press attention Brock Turner received, it seems the victim’s message is the antidote to the poison of a continuing rape culture upheld by perpetrators who equate sexual assault with ‘sexual promiscuity’ and by the very people who are supposed to protect us and bring justice. It is up to us to protect, support, hold up the words and voices of victims for the world to see.

Yes, one of the messages we can take from this case is that if you are rich, white, male, cis, straight, privileged like Turner, you can seemingly get away with anything, but another message we must take is that we can and should try to change this. We can’t stand for it anymore. If we learn from the resilience and bravery of the victim in this case, if we listen to the powerful words of survivors instead of the feeble bleating of rape apologists, if we speak out, we can fight rape culture and we can work to end it.



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