Boys Will Be Boys? Thoughts on the Stanford Rape Case and Attitudes toward Women

Even members of the Stanford community are disappointed with the seemingly light sentence for Brock Turner, who was convicted of rape of a fellow student. (Photo Credit: D. Ross Cameron/AP)

In the immortal and (infamous) words of Donald Trump, when prompted by self-professed journalist Don Lemon to explain his derogatory comments about Mexicans made in his announcement to run for President of the United States: “Somebody’s doing the raping.” This comment came on the heels of his initial insistence that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” As far as Trump was concerned, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Speaking on behalf of the Hispanic/Latino community (of which I am not a part, mind you), what I find most insulting in that last bit is that he tried to qualify his remarks by saying that not all Mexicans are bad people, as if that negated the racism which preceded it. It’s like when people preface a insult with “No offense, but.” If I’m liable to be offended by what you’re saying, that makes it worse, on some level, that you think you can say whatever you want just because you add a disclaimer.

Let’s not lose sight about how awful the sentiments at the crux of Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric truly are, though. Trump’s bombastic and prejudicial words are indicative of a mentality within white America that blacks and Latinos are, by their presumed natures, more likely to commit murders, rapes and other crimes. Let’s not even go as far as to inject statistics into this discussion, because you can almost guarantee any metric Donald Trump cites is intentionally inaccurate, and even when faced with evidence to the contrary, his supporters will disregard the more reliable data because Trump’s “truthiness” fits the narrative that makes the most sense to them. Stephen Colbert, while still serving in the role of the O’Reilly Factor parodist, hit the nail on the head when he talked about his gut speaking louder to him than his rational mind could. This attitude is a hallmark of the Trump faithful, and of an American public increasingly distrustful of the “mainstream media” and its purported corporate agenda.

Accordingly, when incidents such as the trial and sentencing of Brock Turner—known colloquially as the “Stanford rape case”—occur, those people riding the “Trump Train” are probably unfazed by the same crime committed by a white perpetrator. The sentence handed down by presiding judge Aaron Persky—six months of jail time, with three years of probation and lifetime registration on a list of sex offenders—as well as certain circumstances surrounding the trial, have been met with criticism and outrage from a number of angles. The sentence was too light given the nature of the offense. Persky’s justification based on claims that a severe stint in prison would leave a “severe impact” on Turner shows a disregard for the impact the victim undoubtedly already feels. The letter Dan Turner, Brock’s father penned, wrongly portrays him as a victim of a 20-minute mistake when momentary lapses in judgment have led to far worse consequences and punishments—and again, the severity of the crime and the true identity of the victim seem to go by the wayside.

To be fair, it is not as if the dramatis personae herein are getting off entirely scot-free. Brock Turner will be labeled as a sex offender for the rest of his life, and USA Swimming, the national governing body of competitive swimming, has also effected a lifelong ban. As I understand, he also has been expelled by Stanford University. Aaron Persky has since been barred from serving as the judge on another sexual assault case, and in other trials on his docket, potential jurors have refused to be part of a jury with him presiding. Even Vice President Joe Biden has been a very vocal critic of the decision, speaking on behalf of a “nation” that “is not satisfied” with the verdict. As Brock Turner’s case has garnered so much publicity, even if this is his “just deserts,” his life will never be the same. I’m not sure that it will be quite so bad as his father portrays it, but I don’t feel like I am speaking in hyperbole by reasoning that everything has changed for the Turner family.

I’m not going to argue the merits of the case here. I don’t know enough of the specifics to do that, nor do I have the legal experience/knowledge. Besides, a court of law has already ruled on this matter. My focus, rather, is where we go from here. Some onlookers, as a result of this exercise in, shall we say, creative sentencing likely will view this turn in the American criminal justice system as more evidence of an institution which does not work equally for people of varying socioeconomic status. A number of them may have even been hoping the Ivy League athlete would be knocked down more than a peg by the ruling in the case, viewing Turner’s actions as emblematic of a “jock” mentality which breeds feelings of entitlement and encourages misogynistic behavior; realistically, though, whether this crime occurred at Stanford or South Dakota State, the same violation of a woman’s body would be the result. In addition, women’s rights advocates are wont to see this miscarriage of justice as a springboard for invoking the “war on women,” an umbrella under which issues such as abortion and equal representation in the workplace also fall.

To this last end, I’m not sure I totally disagree. That is to say, while the genesis of Brock Turner’s actions may not have been grounded in a deep-seated hatred for the opposite sex (who knows what Turner may truly have been thinking in those critical moments, if he was thinking at all), and while Aaron Perksy may have had legitimate legal reasons to largely give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, that an indifference exists in our society to matters of sexual assault and violence against women is more than apparent. Far too often, colleges and universities charged with ensuring the welfare of their respective student body have failed to adequately address the threat of sexual violence on campus—for men and women alike. A recent ad campaign known as “The Unacceptable Acceptance Letters” has recently caused quite a stir with the stark realities facing today’s college students it confronts.

The accompanying video is emotionally jarring—and that’s a good thing. It forces us to grapple with the notion that image-conscious learning institutions across America will either turn a largely deaf ear to the concerns of victimized young women, or will even work to discredit them. Brigham Young University recently garnered national attention for claims made by several female students that the university retaliated against them in some form or another for reporting they were victims of a crime. Ironically, the university hid behind its “honor code” in justifying why these women did not merit a more compassionate response. Better to keep up appearances than acknowledge students are, you know, human beings, right, BYU?

It’s not just vaunted halls of higher education which have put young women and men in the crosshairs by discouraging a more effective review process for reported cases of rape and sexual assault. The U.S. Armed Forces, too, has been an apparent hotbed of sexual impropriety. As this Katie Couric report from 2009 details, in the year 2006 alone, 2,974 cases of rape and sexual assault were reported, and only about 10% of them resulted in a military trial. That’s absurdly low. 10 years later, we’re not that much further along on the road to substantive improvement. Just this past week, Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) measure that would have helped revamp a broken review of instances of sexual crimes among military members failed to be included in a $600 billion+ defense bill. Evidently, keeping Gitmo open forever is more vital than safeguarding the people who are supposed to be fighting for our nation and its ideals. My bad.

That some measure of justice was apportioned at all in the Brock Turner case is perhaps somewhat encouraging, but above all else, that his more lenient sentencing has raised the ire of a nation signifies the United States has significant progress to make on the issue of supporting victims of incest, rape, and sexual abuse. In a day and age in which the right of women to choose what they do with their own bodies is yet a point of clear discord, that “slut-shaming,” and other manners of discouraging would-be reporters of crimes based on the hollow excuse they could falsely accuse an innocent person, are so rampant speaks to a collective failure of our society. Sure, attempted abuses on this end do occur, but not to the extent avenues for claiming legitimate attacks on one’s person should be abandoned out of deference for the reputation of the accused.

A steep price to pay for 20 minutes out of a 20-year life? Boys will be boys? Dan Turner’s letter to the judge asking for clemency in his son’s case is understandable. I mean, this is his flesh and blood we’re talking about here, and the sense of entitlement of which the message smacks fits the stereotypical bill of the Ivy League family. Still, that other such shaky sources of logic regarding rape can be found elsewhere, institutionalized and internalized, suggests attitudes which condone violence against women are more pervasive than we’d like to believe. Say what you want about the defendant or the judge presiding in this scenario, but the Stanford rape case does have larger implications in what it reveals about us as a country.

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