In case you’ve been living under a rock, a 20-year old man was sentenced to 6 months in jail and a lifetime on a sexual offender registry for the sexual assault of a 23-year-old woman, generating considerable outrage at the leniency of the sentence. Here’s a report from CNN, and here’s the letter that the victim read in the courtroom, which provides further details.
The attack in question occured in the back alley of a fraternity at Stanford University after both individuals had been drinking heavily, generating another round of debates about whether she should have, in fact, not be drinking, and whether he was given the light sentence because he was white, or an athlete.
Do I have an opinion on this? Sure, of course, but I’m not going to join the outrage either way. (Not because it isn’t outrage-worthy, but because I’m just not keen on shouting in outrage.) So let’s just call these observations instead.
If this case were a simple matter of two drunk individuals hooking up, then the “drunk” narrative would have made sense.
There have been reports of instances in which a man and a woman, both drinking, both equally initiating a sexual encounter, both consenting in the ordinary definition of the term, neither capable of consent in the legal definition, have sex — and the man is found guilty, at law or in a college tribunal, of rape. See this incident out of Occidental College reported last year.
There are also at least some college administrators, who hold these hearings and administer the penalties, who have said they genuinely believe that, in such cases, men are indeed at fault, no matter what the context was. See this article from Slate, also from 2015, for background on this discussion: men are deemed “at fault” for the presumption that, if a man is physically capable of having sex, he can’t be “too drunk to consent”; or, in other tellings, men are “at fault” because they’re not (as) troubled by it as the women in those pairings are.
This is the context. The reason why Brock Turner has defenders is that the story seems to them to fit into this narrative, so people have assumed it was a similar he said/she said case.
It should go without saying that this case doesn’t actually fit the “they were both drunk” narrative. She had passed out, for crying out loud! That’s where the narrative changes. Now, Turner’s claim is that he didn’t realize she had passed out, and it was mere coincidence that the two other men happened upon the scene when they did, because otherwise, he would have certainly realized that was the case and ceased. This is, to say the least, unlikely.
Now, I’ve never been passed-out drunk. I’ve never blacked out. I don’t know if a person who is on the verge of passing out is unmistakably physically incapacitated, nearly-immobile, or if, to anyone near them, they just appear, well, ordinary-level drunk. I suspect that movies and TV aren’t a good guide here. Is the fact that she passed out, but not he, an objective measure that she was the drunker one, or that he was sufficiently non-drunk to know what he was doing? Or is passed-out-ness not an adequate marker? (And, yes, I tried unsuccessfully to find answers online.)
But once she passed out? This can’t seriously be a question.
And for him to blame “the culture” for his misdeed? No.
What is rape? Did Brock Turner rape his victim?
It’s a strange thing, this.
A fellow blogger is quite explicit: “if you penatrate a person’s anus or vagina, however slightly, with any body part or instrument, against their will, that is rape,” which matches the official FBI definition. But the actual crimes for which he was convicted were (courtesy a National Review piece by Mona Charen)
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.
Now, I don’t know how they determined that he “intend[ed] to commit rape.” It almost seems that he intentionally didn’t rape her — or else he would have before he was interrupted. In his telling, that of two drunk people hooking up, he did what would have called, back in the day, “getting to third base,” depending on your numbering system. And my, say, 20-year-old self would have said there’s a big difference between third base and “sexual intercourse.”
And to read the victim’s account, while knowing I could be wrongly interpreting her words, it seems as if what was horrifying to her was not this “penetrative” aspect of the incident, but the larger violation of being essentially naked with this stranger, and, perhaps even more, having been found naked by other strangers. Would there have been criminal charges that could have been brought if his finger hadn’t been where it doesn’t belong?
What is the right penalty for non-rape sexual assault, compared to other crimes? If, rather than this incident, Turner had been found punching (that is, non-sexually assaulting) a man or a woman, what would have been his jail sentence? Yeah, I don’t know either.
What about drinking?
Do we really have to go through this all over again?
It’s inadvisable to leave your purse sitting on the car seat, then walk away and leave the car unlocked. Yes, the individual who sees this opportunity to open the door and take the purse is still a thief. But, yes, you also could have prevented this by locking the door and keeping the purse out of view.
Are you somehow morally to blame for allowing the purse to be stolen? No. But it’s still appropriate advice to keep purses out of sight and doors locked.
Or, heck, some time ago, I left my wallet in the shopping cart at the grocery store. Turns out, a customer found it, and, recognizing the address, drove over to drop it off.
Was I morally at fault for potentially enabling someone to steal my wallet? No, of course not. But it was a careless thing to have done and I’m just grateful to have gotten it returned.
And in both instances, a person taking the purse/the wallet would have still been a thief. Would the penalties have been the same, as for a mugger, or a pickpocket? I don’t know. Is the degree of moral fault the same, based on formal moral teaching or our internalized sense of right and wrong? I likewise don’t know. But that doesn’t mean we should all leave our valuables unattended.
But, number six, there’s another issue:
Back in the day, why, yes, I did drink in college. And somehow it seemed that the more I drank, the more protective the men around me became. Heck, that’s when Dave walked me home, and made it clear that he was interested in dating me, but didn’t make any other move than kissing me on the cheek. And another time, Snake (yes, that was his nickname) — well, he got all gentlemanly and kissed me on the hand after walking me home. Now, I wasn’t interested in dating either of these men, but each of them were, according to stereotypes, potential sexual-assaulters, at least in terms of their drinking and partying habits (though Snake professed that he’d sobered up), but none of us had any concern that they would do so, nor do I really recall any more generalized concern of “be careful, he might rape you.”
To be sure, though, these were just parties hosted by friends, or by someone in a very extended circle of friends. I never had any connection to Greek life.
But it is disturbing that, in the year 2016, kids can be shamed, formally by administrators and among their peers, for failing to address a person by their proper pronouns, but men aren’t shamed by other men for taking advantage of women, and aren’t encouraged by their “culture” to be helpful instead. Maybe we’re just too much a Scouting family: “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent” and promises to “help other people at all times.” But maybe the attention to “social justice” (proper pronouns, white privilege awareness, etc.) has crowded out issues around binge drinking and basic decent behavior. Or maybe the attention to dictating “rules” (don’t microaggress, for instance) means that the larger idea of “be a decent person” is gone.
Because whatever else is true about Brock Turner, he is doubtless missing that moral compass that would have simply said, “she’s drunk,” and walked away, or gotten her home. And there seems to be a whole world of kids missing that moral compass, who probably think of themselves as “good people” nonetheless.
Oh, and number seven, the dad complaining about the injustice of a punishment for “20 minutes of action”? Parents are protective of their kids. How many times have you read in the paper of a murder suspect whose parents said, “he couldn’t have done it, he’s a good kid”? Which means that, regardless of anything else, this is not something to freak out about.