In January 2015, a Stanford undergraduate student sexually assaulted a young woman. The woman, unconscious at the time, was assaulted behind a dumpster. Two graduate students riding past the scene were able to stop the assault and detain the perpetrator – Stanford champion swimmer Brock Turner – until the police came. A little over a year later, the jury found Turner guilty on three counts of sexual assault, with a maximum of 14 years in prison.
But last week, Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in county jail and three years probation because the judge feared the “severe impact” a longer sentence would have on the star swimmer.
How’s that for your daily dose of justice?
This case brings up many important reminders. I call them reminders, and not lessons, because they are not new findings; rather, they are what most anti-sexual assault activists, experts, and advocates have been saying for decades. The outrage over Brock Turner’s light sentence, the heartbreaking, yet extremely powerful victim statement, and the rape apologists that have gone viral since last week is perhaps what is bringing these reminders to the surface. People are now listening. Here are some important reminders from this tragic case.
1.Justice is rarely served. I am not a lawyer, but from what I understand, this was a pretty open-and-shut case. Brock Turner was caught red handed. There were two eyewitnesses. There was physical evidence. The jury found Turner guilty on not one but three counts of sexual assault. Despite all of this, the judge still gave Turner a light sentence – 6 months of jail time, but more likely three months. Turner will likely be home in time for Christmas.
This light sentence is a reminder that the criminal justice system is broken. If justice isn’t being served here, then imagine what happens to the cases that either don’t have witnesses, don’t have evidence, or the perpetrator wasn’t caught, or some combination thereof.
More importantly, note that justice means something different for every survivor. Some survivors just want to be able to tell their stories and be heard and believed. Others want their abusers to be removed from a certain institution or community. Some want to take the legal route. But, historically, as a community, when we hear of a sexual assault case, our instinct is to wash our hands of it, step back, and say, “Let’s just let law enforcement take care of it – it’s not our job.”
And in this way, we fail our survivors in so many ways: (1) they might not even care or want for law enforcement to take care of it (but are looking for other forms of community accountability); and (2) more often than not, the law enforcement route doesn’t ultimately work in the survivor’s favor.
2. Rape Culture is ingrained in every part of society. It’s not surprising that Turner failed to take accountability for his actions, and instead blame it on alcohol and the broader college culture. Most perpetrators sincerely and honestly don’t believe they did anything wrong. They believe they are entitled to the behavior and have trouble associating themselves with the actions of a “true rapist.” This is rape culture. Young men raised to think that it is okay to sexually assault an unconscious woman – and even go as far as to say that she enjoyed it – is the epitome of adopting the “boys will be boys” mindset.
Turner’s father and some of Turner’s classmates wrote letters in defense of Turner, expressing how unfair it is for society to label Turner a “rapist.” His father expressed remorse over his son’s “twenty minutes of action.” As a parent, I understand the sentiment to love and support your child even when he has done something wrong. But is essential to demand accountability, even of your own son. The inability of Turner’s father to see the crime that his son has committed is a reflection of rape culture at its worst.
3. White Male privilege always saves the day. If you’re white, rich, an athlete, male, or some combination thereof, and you commit a crime, count on getting a light sentence. Perhaps Judge Persky had a lapse in judgment when he gave Turner a 6-month sentence. Yet his rationale for such a sentence proved otherwise. Judge Persky believed that anything longer than 6 months would have a “severe impact on Turner” and that he doesn’t “pose any danger to others.” What would Turner’s fate be, if say, he was Black? Or poor? Or not a star athlete? Would Judge Persky be just as concerned with his future? We live in a time and place where we are more concerned about protecting the lives and reputations of our star athletes or white males, than we are of those our society clearly values less.
4. There is still hope. Despite all of this, there is still hope. That hope is in the form of two men, the two bikers, who were bystanders and didn’t walk away. They saw a situation that didn’t look right and were brave enough to intervene and keep the abuser until the police came. They didn’t wait for law enforcement to do their job. They didn’t worry about what having a star swimmer arrested would do to his legacy.
This is what collective responsibility looks like. There’s a role for bystanders. There’s a role for all of us in actively protecting our brothers and sisters in humanity. Our job is to create victim-centric environments where we offer survivors what they need socially, emotionally, physically, and legally, and it is not just something we do to be nice. It is our obligation and our duty and it is not in conflict with the legal trajectory as so many believe it to be.
5. This young woman may be the victim of a crime, but she is anything but a victim: she is a survivor. There are no words for how incredibly brave, courageous, and articulate this young woman is. She endured the investigation, the trial, the interrogation of all the police and lawyers with her head still held up high. As if that isn’t enough, she stood before her abuser and the judge and made an incredibly powerful statement. I have no words for that — just love, and admiration, and prayers for healing.
Nadiah Mohajir is co-founder & executive director of HEART Women & Girls, a nationally recognized nonprofit that promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in faith communities.