Ladies, take a good look at a photo of Brock Turner. Doesn’t matter if you see the disheveled mugshot belatedly released by authorities or the smiling yearbook portrait offered by Turner’s parents. That’s the face of a rapist. Those big blue eyes, those perfect white teeth, that All-American smile. Don’t be fooled. That handsome swimming star raped an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster at Stanford University.
His six-month sentence didn’t reflect that – in part because Americans misunderstand the nature of rape.
We think of rapists as strangers lurking in bushes. We warn our daughters not to walk home alone late at night and instead to get a nice male friend to escort them. But that nice male friend, with his All-American smile and perfect teeth, is far more likely to rape you than anyone lurking in the shrubbery.
Our understanding of sexual assault has to change. We can’t save the lengthy jail sentences for “legitimate rapes,” as some politicians have called the boogeyman-in-the-bushes scenario. Acquaintance rape is real rape. It is the vast majority of sex crimes.
More than eighty percent of rapes are committed by an acquaintance. As a sex-crimes prosecutor, I handled hundreds of cases involving victims’ friends, fellow students, coaches, coworkers, religious leaders. My filing cabinets overflowed with rapes by the victim’s uncle, stepfather, or ex-boyfriend. Every year or so, we’d arrest a pedophile ice-cream man. Smiling acquaintances, all.
College cases, like the one featured in my latest novel, “The Last Good Girl,” often feature golden boys: football stars, frat guys, cute RAs. These rapists don’t use guns or knives. They use alcohol, the number one date rape drug in America. Kegs are their weapon.
And alcohol is usually their defense, too. But campus acquaintance rapes are not the misremembered drunken hookups that many people believe. In fact, 5% of college men commit 90% of the sex assaults on campuses. These assaults are not the result of intoxicated “miscommunications” but of serial predators who commit the same crime over and over. If a man has raped once, he likely did it before — and will do it again.
The survivor in the Stanford case aptly described Turner’s predatory conduct: “I was the wounded antelope of the herd, completely alone and vulnerable, physically unable to fend for myself, and he chose me.” Campus rapes often involve victims who are so intoxicated they cannot possibly consent; predators choose them for precisely this reason.
Deterrence is particularly important in these types of cases – but sentences don’t reflect that. Brock Turner’s sentence, six months out of a possible fourteen years, is not terribly unusual for this type of crime. The outrage over this particular case is the outrage that I felt over and over as a sex-crimes prosecutor, when my rape convictions in the local D.C. Superior Court routinely garnered fractions of the sentences given to federal drug defendants in the U.S. District Court, next door.
Why do we give mandatory jail sentences of decades to non-violent drug offenders, but fail to significantly incarcerate rapists like Brock Turner? Certainly, in Turner’s case, his blond hair and blue eyes played a role. I can’t imagine a black kid in the same situation getting the six-month slap on the wrist that Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner. Class, too, played a role. Turner comes from a background so privileged, the judge thought that jail time “would have a severe impact” on him (isn’t that what jail time is supposed to do?). Merely going through the process was punishment enough. White male privilege is alive and well.
But most of all, I think this is about our refusal to see acquaintance rape as a real crime. This attitude was reflected, unsurprisingly, by one of Turner’s friends in her letter of support for him. “This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot,” wrote Leslie Rasmussen. “That is a rapist. These are not rapists.”
Ms. Rasmussen, Judge Persky, America: Brock Turner’s case is what sexual assault looks like. This, or something like it, is happening to 20% of college women. The incredible, eloquent, gut-wrenching victim impact statement written by the survivor demonstrates what thousands of college women go through every year. We need to start taking this seriously.
We need to apply the laws on the books to acquaintance rapes, and actually give the jail time that is prescribed. We need to send a strong message to every young man who might walk an intoxicated young woman by a dumpster. Sex assault is not acceptable. It will be punished. Even when the assailant has a nice smile and impressive swim times.
This is rape. Let’s start treating it that way.