A now-expelled Stanford student raped a young woman a short stroll away from my apartment, and got away with a light sentence. The rape victim’s powerful and personal account of the incident sparked a wave of support, including a heartwarming letter by Joe Biden. Yet rape, especially on college campuses, remains pervasive. Would now be a good time to talk about rape prevention?
The obvious culprit in this story, Brock Turner, penetrated an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He has not taken responsibility for his actions. He blames Stanford’s culture of drinking and promiscuity, neither of which raped the victim. The victim’s fate was trivialized by the rapist’s relatives and friends, and the judge, during the sentencing against Turner. They said Turner was a sweet man and had been punished sufficiently for his “20 minutes of action” by losing his appetite and being registered as a sex offender.
The victim was also let down by the social system, which, in contrast to the perpetrator’s next-of-kin, is your responsibility and mine. One grave injustice illustrated by this case is that we treat sexual assault committed by people we can relate to as less culpable. Sexual assault, of course, occurs throughout all social strata and is most frequently committed by men who have some prior relationship to the victim. It is beyond doubt that all victims ought to be protected from the horrors of sexual violence and perpetrators must equally be held accountable for their actions.
Equality of all before the law and in society was not so apparent in this case. Media frequently pointed out how accomplished the rapist was academically and as an athlete. The victim wrote that after she first read the details of what had happened to her in a newspaper article, „the article listed [Turner’s] swimming times.” The judge, another former Stanford athlete, let the rapist off the hook too easily because of the “severe impact” a tough prison sentence would have had on the ex-student’s privileged life. Long prison sentences ensure neither justice nor rehabilitation, but this is true regardless of a person’s wealth and professional accomplishments.
As some have pointed out, that Brock Turner was convicted at all is a sign of some progress, as the majority of rapists goes free. A lot of people have done everything right, from the two graduate students who had the courage to call the police on Turner, to all the professors, lawyers, and politicians who took a clear stance in support of this and other rape victims, to the activists and volunteers who have much improved the way Stanford copes with sexual assault. There is also a recall campaign against the judge led by the extraordinary Stanford Prof. Michelle Dauber, who has bravely stood by rape victims on many occasions.
Yet this case is one among too many: according to a recent Stanford survey nearly half of female undergraduates experience sexual violence during their four years on campus; by Stanford’s narrow definition 7% are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. Stanford data are insufficient to effectively compare this campus to other U.S. colleges. Still, plenty of research has established that sexual violence on and off campuses is as widespread as it is toxic.
But I am not convinced that all of us would have been on the right side of history in this rape case or any other, including me. Would I have jumped off my bike and gotten into the hassle of reporting a Stanford student to officials? Would I have resisted to mistrust the victim if there had been no eye witnesses? Would I have omitted the irrelevant achievements of the (then presumed) perpetrator when telling someone about the case? Would I have even unequivocally supported throwing a golden boy into jail for part of his twenties for fingering someone who cannot remember much of what happened that night? Probably yes, but disturbingly: maybe not.
This incident shocked me because it happened on my campus (and because I sometimes erroneously address my packages to the apartment in which one of the guys who reported Turner lives). I’m floored by the levelheaded analyses of the rape culture on U.S. campuses because as a man and an international graduate student I never had to experience any of it. I frankly felt like crying when I realized the authenticity of the victim’s statement, partially because reports of sexual violence are dismissed as cries for attention too often.
Civil society has substituted some of the support that the victim deserved from the beginning: by decrying the hypocrisy of her doubters, by applauding her bravery, and by drawing attention to the obscene structure and culture that trivialize sexual violence among U.S. college students. These reactions have generated a rare positive energy that leaves a feeling that this is not going to happen again.
Far from it. All countries, not just the United States, struggle to prevent sexual assault – in Austria, 30% of women say they have experienced sexual violence and 16% report attempted or actual rape according to a 2011 survey. Most sexual assault cases on U.S. university campuses don’t make it to the courthouse, because the burden of proof is too high or because they are not reported. Many students accused of sexual assault are not expelled from their schools, because colleges have installed and maintained imperfect alternative review processes that protect their reputations but not their female students. Some rape victims are still not believed or even met with empathy, whether they are as eloquent as Brock Turner’s victim or less so.
And none of us can say with certainty that we are doing everything we can to prevent rape and ensure that we do justice to its victims. For both men and women, this includes calling bullshit on sexual violence and challenging situations in which rape is portrayed as anything other than unacceptable – even when no one is watching. It means accepting a rejection and asking for consent when things aren’t crystal clear (“would you like a cup of tea?”). It means getting involved and involving others in conversations about and initiatives against sexual assault. And it means always taking rape and rape victims seriously.
*Christof is a PhD student at Stanford University, California, and a Sektionacht activist.