Brock Turner is a 23-year-old athlete and aspiring motivational speaker. Never heard of him? You might know him better as the “Stanford swimmer,” as he was often called in headlines and news reports.
On January 28, 2015, then-student Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the Stanford campus. The woman was taken to a hospital and found to have extensive cuts and bruises both externally and internally. Turner was banned from Stanford, as well as USA Swimming — his route to the Olympics — and indicted on five charges, including rape. Although the formal rape charges were dropped because the investigation found that he had only used his fingers and allegedly a broken bottle to penetrate the victim(!), Turner was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. He is permanently registered as a sex offender.
While this case’s resolution might sound ultimately satisfying, the apparent “justice” for Turner belies the full shape of the story. The very fact that we know this as the “Stanford swimmer” story demonstrates that Turner is the protagonist if not the hero. He lost his appeal, but managed to make it into the news cycle again, using his platform to advertise himself as a speaker on the dangers of underage drinking. The victim, known only as Emily Doe, has been relegated to a plot point in Turner’s arc, and Turner knows it:
Emily Doe certainly tried to make her voice heard, even discussing with Stanford a possible plaque to be placed at the site, but the school rejected her quotes as too inflammatory, calling her choices inappropriate and upsetting. Apparently, Emily’s story needed to be sanitized in Stanford’s superficial attempt to look at it through rose-colored glasses — literally, they wanted to place a garden at the location of the attack.
Indeed, victims’ stories are so often subjugated by the aggressors’, with more concern given to lip service to “stop assault” rather than to probe the underlying assumption about the case, or any sexual assault case. And that assumption is that Emily was to blame, and while we feel sorry for her, we feel sorrier for Turner and his cancelled swimming career, on which endless headlines fixate.
“Why was she behind a dumpster?”
“She shouldn’t have been drinking.”
“She led him on.”
“This was just regret.”
Or, somewhat less judgmentally:
“It was just kids being dumb.”
“He just didn’t know that she didn’t want it.” (Editorial note: almost no one wants to be shoved into the ground, be fingered while they’re passed out, or have filthy objects shoved into their genitals.)
Turner pounced upon these quibbles, appealing on the basis that he had his clothes on and therefore only desired “outercourse.” Again, Emily’s wants and desires are glossed over in favor of quibbling over what Turner wanted. Despite Emily explaining in her victim impact statement that she’d had liquor and simply didn’t realize how it would affect her, the judging public was quick to dismiss her as a silly, stupid girl who got so drunk that she passed out behind a dumpster. (No one knows how she got there.) Molly Hill gives a great overview of how victim-blaming connects to rape culture.
“I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name. “ — Emily Doe
Judge Aaron Persky famously gave Turner a reduced sentence — only six months in jail, and Turner was then let out after three months. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner],” Persky said. Later, he was recalled from the bench.
A similar case in Steubenville, Ohio saw a gang rape of an intoxicated young woman, which somehow inspired mass sympathy for the rapists rather than the victim, who, like Emily Doe, didn’t quite understand how she’d blacked out. She received text messages from one of the boys panicking over whether she’d call the police. Despite this obvious admission of guilt, the judging public seemed more concerned with whether or not the boys would be okay. CNN’s Poppy Harlow voiced a palpable concern for the boys’ future rather than the victim’s: “it was incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
The ugly truth is that men’s voices and futures are privileged over women’s, while women are judged by their pasts. We all saw this alarming worldview during the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, whose fans did Olympics-worthy mental gymnastics to justify his past bad behavior as normal stupid boy behavior. Yet women aren’t given that benefit of the doubt. Their “stupidity” is said to ruin lives. They’re held responsible for every mistake, while anti-women activists insist that women don’t take responsibility. Fact is that women shouldn’t take responsibility for the violence committed to them. Can you imagine telling an underage girl that if she drinks excessively, she should be violently penetrated with a broken bottle? That if she flirts with a boy, she should simply lie back and take it if he forces himself on her? That if she misjudges her alcohol tolerance, she should expect to be gang-raped and have her naked images spread on social media?
Anti-women activists also like to turn the tables and hypothesize about men being assaulted by women. Yet the narrative is the same: she did that because of her past, and his future is ruined. It should be that way in both scenarios, in which the aggressor is to blame and we acknowledge that the victim’s future is the one that’s ruined (although hopefully not forever). And that’s not right. If you, male or female, sexually assault someone, your future should be ruined. It’s time to question why we hinge our prevailing opinions about sexual assault and abuse on this disconnect between protecting young men’s futures and shaming young women for their indiscretions. We should not pretend that men are easily undone by rape accusations while women deserve violence for drinking or dressing “slutty.” The punishment that Judge Persky gave Brock Turner simply doesn’t match the punishment via trauma that Emily Doe experienced — because Turner was granted leeway to protect his future. Why are men’s futures prioritized over women’s futures, and why are women’s pasts brought up as the primary cause of violence that is done to them?
Make no mistake, it’s misogyny.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.
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