Outcry over Stanford case hints at shift in rape culture

By going public, a rape survivor has stirred calls for a greater focus on victims and even a push for the ouster of the judge who decided her case. Experts say such shifts in society often spur changes in justice.

Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group/AP
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen reacts to the sentencing of Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer, to six months in prison on three counts of felony sexual assault, outside a courthouse in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 2.

The six-month sentence for Brock Turner was more lenient than many would have expected – or than the six years prosecutors had sought. But in some ways it was terribly ordinary, advocates for rape survivors say. It could even be seen as a rare victory, because unlike an estimated 99 percent of rapes, this one resulted in arrest, trial, conviction, and prison time.

The case might have gone unnoticed by the broader public were it not for the extraordinary statement written by the anonymous survivor, detailing the effect not only of the rape but of all that she has endured in her pursuit of what turned out to not really feel like justice.

Her statement has since been read aloud on CNN and shared and read by millions online, standing in sharp contrast to statements by Mr. Turner’s family and friends that dwelled on his suffering and the loss of his status as a Stanford student and swimmer.

The case has sparked an effort to recall Santa Clara County (Calif.) Judge Aaron Persky, a planned protest during Stanford’s commencement this Sunday, and who knows how many family conversations. It’s a level of outrage – and an outpouring of support for the survivor – that is unprecedented and encouraging, say scholars, activists, and legal professionals.

“People are saying, enough is enough – we have to find justice that doesn’t just punish the people who seek it” after a sexual assault, says Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., and an expert on Title IX, the civil rights law that outlines colleges’ obligations to respond to sexual harassment and gender violence.

“Public attitudes about appropriate punishment often drive change,” Professor Lake says. The Turner sentence has prompted many to wonder if there is “an underlying cultural bias” in the legal system and to call for reform similar to what’s been playing out in recent years on many college campuses.

On campus, a lot of people now “expect the punishment discussion to start with expulsion” – in contrast to a system that often used to treat rape as a misunderstanding and ask a perpetrator to write a paper, he says. On the criminal justice side, he adds, “People will clamor for more jail time.”

'No overcriminalization here'

Think of it as the flip side of the movements to decriminalize actions such as possession of marijuana and to rely less on incarceration for nonviolent offenses, particularly among juveniles. The tough-on-crime policies that resulted in overcrowded prisons have become widely seen as discriminatory against people of color. But when it comes to rape, much of the public may now side with activists who have long pointed out that not only male privilege, but white privilege, athletes’ privilege, and rich people’s privilege are keeping too many criminals from serving sentences that fit their crimes.

“There’s no overcriminalization here,” says Jennifer Gentile Long, CEO of AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, in Washington. If anything, she says, “a lot of the focus on deincarceration and overcriminalization has inappropriately bled into” some conversations in the legal field around sexual violence.

Out of every 1,000 rapes, only an estimated 344 are reported to police, 63 lead to arrests, 13 are referred to prosecutors, seven lead to felony conviction, and six result in a rapist in prison, according to an analysis by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). That compares with 20 robbers and 33 assault/battery perpetrators serving time for every 1,000 of those crimes. 

The question the Turner case raises is how society should balance the various purposes of the justice system – to hold criminals accountable, to ensure public safety, to deter more crime, to give the victim a sense of restoration, and to give individuals opportunities to reform and have a second chance.

By speaking up in this instance, the survivor urges that the last item on that list not outweigh the others. “As this is a first offence I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault…. [W]e should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault needs to be severe enough … to be preventative,” she wrote in her statement, which she allowed BuzzFeed to publish.

Although “it is a significant and sad moment” when someone is sentenced to prison, Ms. Long says, when it comes to rape, the legal system “needs to send a signal that these are serious crimes.”

Signs of improvement

That this case got as far as it did signals improvements in law enforcement and prosecutors’ ability to pursue rape charges. But there needs to be much more training about how traumatizing sexual assault is and how common it is for perpetrators to prey on those who are particularly vulnerable, Long and others say.

National dialogue around the judge’s decision and the statement by Turner’s father that lamented how much his son’s life has changed because of “20 minutes of action” highlights to many that some people identify and sympathize more with the rapist than with the victim.

In an open letter to Judge Persky published in the Stanford Daily, Stanford alumnus Ariel Lang encouraged him to study research about trauma and sexual assault “so that these harms can be appropriately weighed in sentencing a perpetrator.” It went on to outline some of the short-term and long-term impact on survivors. “I am not suggesting vindictiveness,” the letter concluded. “Support efforts at restitution, education and healing. But, please, do not minimize the impact of trauma in an effort to spare a convicted perpetrator.”

While thousands of people have signed online petitions supporting the idea of removing Judge Persky, others say that’s a misguided effort.

The judge chose to follow a probation officials’ report recommending a particular sentence, and that process is meant to increase fairness in the system, notes columnist Chris White in a post on LawNewz.com

Factors such as Turner’s lack of prior convictions and the level of alcohol in his system were cited in the sentencing recommendation. Typically judges are not removed simply because the public disagrees with a sentence, but because of egregious misconduct, Mr. White writes. Still, the judge had discretion in setting punishment, and Turner’s three felony convictions could have resulted in as much as 14 years. Prosecutors recommended six years.

Shifting public views

The recall effort may end up being largely symbolic, but the message of public support for survivors seems clearer than ever.

“It’s very different than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago … the response has been almost unanimously pro victim,” says RAINN founder and CEO Scott Berkowitz.

He compares it to the evolution of responses to sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, from a sort of public shrug when they first surfaced to recent “universal scorn” as more and more women have come forward.

“There’s been a gradual improvement in understanding that we can’t give people a pass because they are famous or popular, but I don’t think that problem has gone away yet,” Mr. Berkowitz says.

The survivor in this case wrote about everything from the difficult forensic examination she underwent at the hospital to the probing personal (and irrelevant) questions the defense attorney used to try to weaken her. She also praised the witnesses who intervened and those who have supported her along the way.

Activists hope the public sympathy her statement has generated will translate into real changes on college campuses and in the criminal justice system.

“It’s not an anomaly that she was treated this way,” says Sofie Karasek, co-founder of End Rape on Campus. Campus administrators and people in the criminal justice system do seem to often have the attitude of “well, he can’t control himself, boys will be boys, this is part of the culture,” she says.

Stanford's response

For its part, Stanford quickly investigated and banned Turner from campus. The victim was not a Stanford student, but on the night of the rape had attended a party there with her sister.

Stanford could be doing more to address the climate on campus, some campus activists say. For starters, Ms. Karasek suggests, it needs to reform its survey of students. The survey’s definition of sexual assault is too narrow, she says, masking the scope of the problem. According to the survey released last October, 1.9 percent of graduate and undergraduate students had experienced sexual assault, and when looking just at female students, the figure was 4.7 percent.

Turner’s and some of his supporters’ statements “went beyond the pale” in their tone-deaf insensitivity, and “if I were Stanford, I would take that as another call to action” in terms of better educating students and parents about issues of sexual consent and sexual violence, says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women in Washington.

As public pressure has built this week, some of those supporters have recanted their statements.

“I did not acknowledge strongly enough the severity of Brock's crime and the suffering and pain that his victim endured, and for that lack of acknowledgement, I am deeply sorry,” wrote Leslie Rasmussen, who attended school with Turner, on her Facebook page.

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