A case in California is exposing the fault-lines of the way we perceive rape and sexual assault, writes Joyce Fegan
The rape by a 20-year-old man of an unconscious 23-year-old woman on January 17, 2015, has sparked a global chorus.
The chorus goes like this: “Rape is only ever the fault of the rapist. Not alcohol. Not clothing. Not the victim.”
His name is Brock Turner. Her name? We don’t know.
They were at a frat party. On that night, behind a dumpster on the campus of the prestigious academic institution that is California’s Stanford University, a young man was seen moving up and down violently on the partially naked body of a female. She was not moving.
Two Swedish exchange students, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, witnessed the act and chased Turner as he fled the scene. Mr Jonsson tackled Turner and held him on the ground until police arrived. The Swedish student began to cry when he recounted to police the horror of what he had just seen.
The case went to trial earlier this year and it lasted one week. Turner was found guilty on three counts: Intent to commit rape, sexual penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated person, and sexual penetration with a foreign object of an unconscious person.
Prosecutors asked that Turner be sentenced to six years in prison.
“By sentencing the defendant to a substantial prison term, this court will send a message to him, Jane Doe [the victim], and the greater community that sexually violating a woman is never acceptable, especially when she is intoxicated.”
Turner’s lawyer asked the court to put him on probation for three to five years, and order him to serve a four-month county jail sentence. In the end, he got six months. Questions are being raised over whether he was given a lighter sentence because he was in contention for a place in the US Olympic team. Judge Persky, a Stanford graduate who was once captain of the university’s lacrosse team, said: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”
The public outrage at the leniency of the sentence began, just as letters from those in Turner’s camp began to circulate.
Dan Turner, his father, wrote a letter pleading on behalf of his son.
It goes like this: “These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.
“It’s clear that Brock was desperately trying to fit in at Stanford and fell into the culture of alcohol consumption and partying. This culture was modeled by many of the upperclassmen on the swim team and played a role in the events of Jan 17th and 18th 2015.”
Then another pro-Brock letter emerged.
“I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next 10- plus years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him” wrote Leslie Rasmussen, a former girlfriend of Turner. “I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right.
“But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
“He is crushed that the jury ruled against him… He is utterly terrified and traumatised by this,” wrote his mother, Carleen Turner.
“The verdict hurt because we knew he was a great kid that in the matter of a few hours, made a few bad decisions that have changed his life forever,” wrote family friend, Jeff Coudron. “The media never mentioned the girl’s name to protect her, but they plastered Brock’s everywhere, even before he was tried.”
Teresa Rhodes, another family friend, wrote: “In my heart, I am certain that his intent was never anything but to have a consensual encounter with a young woman.”
And then came the victim impact statement, 12 pages and 7,000 words long. We heard the victim’s voice, her side of the story, how she woke up to find pine needles inside her body. The statement, which was addressed to Turner, was uploaded to the internet and read millions and millions of times by people all over the world.
It goes like this: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”
She explained how she went to a party, let her guard down, and woke up in hospital covered in dried blood.
“On January 17th, 2015, it was a quiet Saturday night at home. My dad made some dinner and I sat at the table with my younger sister who was visiting for the weekend. I was working full time and it was approaching my bed time. I planned to stay at home by myself, watch some TV and read, while she went to a party with her friends.
“Then, I decided it was my only night with her, I had nothing better to do, so why not, there’s a dumb party 10 minutes from my house, I would go, dance like a fool, and embarrass my younger sister. I made silly faces, let my guard down, and drank liquor too fast not factoring in that my tolerance had significantly lowered since college.
“The next thing I remember I was in a gurney in a hallway. I had dried blood and bandages on the backs of my hands and elbow. I thought maybe I had fallen and was in an admin office on campus. I was very calm and wondering where my sister was. A deputy explained I had been assaulted.”
Perhaps the most gruesome part of her uncontested testimony was how she came to learn of her defiled, unconscious body lying in public view.
“In public news, I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.”
She said the most damaging part of all was the victim-blaming she endured.
“I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me.
“It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.”
As her articulate words of truth and dignity began to be read all around the world last week, an international well of support sprung up to greet her, a global chorus echoed her call.
“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save, they just stand there shining.’
“Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.”
Leading the chorus that responded to her call was US vice president Joe Biden, in the form of an open letter.
“I do not know your name — but your words are forever seared on my soul. Words that should be required reading for men and women of all ages. Words that I wish with all of my heart you never had to write.”
It has since emerged that Turner sent pictures of his victim’s naked breasts to his friends during the assault.
Mr Biden took aim at the alcohol excuse used by rapists, defence lawyers, and society in sexual assault cases.
“We will speak to change the culture on our college campuses — a culture that continues to ask the wrong questions: What were you wearing? Why were you there? What did you say? How much did you drink? Instead of asking: Why did he think he had licence to rape?” wrote Mr Biden.
“We will make lighthouses of ourselves, as you did — and shine. Your story has already changed lives. You have helped change the culture,”
And it’s not over. Almost 1.2m people have signed a petition to remove Judge Persky from the bench.
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