Over the past several days, the story of a young woman's sexual assault at a Stanford University frat party by a student athlete named Brock Turner has captured international attention.
On the one hand, many of us have been inspired by the powerful words of the anonymous survivor's victim impact statement, first read aloud in court, and since shared by millions of people online. On the other hand, massive outrage has been expressed at both the lenient sentence given by Judge Aaron Persky—himself a former Stanford University athlete—and a letter written by Turner's father in defense of his son, suggesting that jail time was "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action."
An additional letter from a childhood friend of Brock Turner's blames his rape conviction on "political correctness," going on to claim:
"This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement."
Brock Turner's case is important because it sheds light on so many profound misconceptions about rape which are often unseen, and yet taken for granted in our society. For instance, according to the US Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Study, 82% of rapes reported between 2009 and 2013 were committed by someone known to the victim, a statistic that stands in stark contrast to the definition of a rapist offered by Turner's friend.
This friend is also wrong about the effect of intoxication on the definition of rape. A person who is too intoxicated to give consent is too intoxicated to give consent. Period.
Another misconception about rape is that false accusations are common, when in fact the opposite is true: even by conservative estimates, only about 35% of rapes are ever reported, and only a small fraction of those reports result in a trial or conviction.
Meanwhile, a staggering percentage of rape kits that are collected at the time of a report are never tested. Recent studies suggest that there is a backlog of between 100,000 and 400,000 untested rape kits gathering dust in police departments nationwide.
More than 4/5 of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows
Only about 35% of rapes are ever reported
US police departments currently have a backlog of between 100,000 and 400,000 untested rape kits
Given the data, perhaps the most unusual part of this story is that it went to court in the first place. In her victim impact statement, we are told that Brock Turner's victim was found unconscious near a dumpster near the Stanford University campus: a profoundly disturbing image of objectification and dehumanization that echoes the recent discovery of Seattle-area mom Ingrid Lyne in a recycling bin.
Would we even know about this assault if the victim had not been found unconscious?
As a society, much of our focus around rape prevention is still aimed at telling survivors how to behave: Don't drink alcohol, don't dress provocatively, don't go out by yourself...
While a reasonable amount of precaution and being aware of one's surroundings are advisable for everyone, in all situations, the reality is that even doing everything "right" does not insure our safety. Date rape drugs and spiked drinks make it possible to intoxicate a person who has not even been drinking excessively; and people can be raped no matter what they're wearing. (Consider, for instance, information about the prevalence of rape in Victorian England, where women covered themselves head to toe and seldom drank alcohol in public—and still got raped.)
A comprehensive, meaningful discussion on rape prevention must therefore center on the misconceptions at the heart of rape culture, coupled with a critique of the entitlement and objectification that leads people like Brock Turner's father to believe that assaulting an unconscious woman is acceptable, non-violent behavior: "he has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17, 2015."
A stroll through most of our social media feeds indicates that many people are disgusted by Brock Turner and the entitlement he represents. But his actions are nothing if not commonplace, and the leniency of his verdict demonstrates why.
Brock Turner is not an anomalous monster. He's the direct, natural product of a culture that routinely objectifies and dismisses the experiences of survivors and reinforces behavior like his. Calls for accountability in the Stanford rape case are therefore, at their heart, calls for our entire society to begin to pay attention to the actual facts about rape culture.