Men See Themselves In Brock Turner — That’s Why They Don’t Condemn Him

By Anne Thériault

I’ve been watching the social media fallout surrounding the trial of Brock Turner, the swimming champion from Stanford who received a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in January of 2015. As with any other case that deals with violence against women, the reactions have been equal parts depressing and encouraging. Depressing because even now, the narrative persists that young white men convicted of rape are being unfairly denied their potential bright futures. Encouraging because every time this happens, it feels like we get a little closer to exposing the framework of rape minimization and acceptance that supports incidents like these. This case has made it clearer than ever that we as a society condone rape by privileging men’s feelings over victims’ trauma — and more people than ever have objected.

Most of the discussion has centered around two letters. The first is the impact statement written by the victim herself, which she read out loud in court on June 2 and which was subsequently published by Buzzfeed on June 3. The other is letter written by Turner’s father asking for leniency in his sentencing; Stanford law professor Michele Dauber brought this one to public notice when she tweeted a portion of it. The former letter is as gutting as the latter is tone-deaf. The woman that Turner attacked speaks of what it felt like to wake up in the hospital with pine needles and debris inside her vagina. Meanwhile, Turner’s father laments that his son no longer enjoys pretzels, and argues he has been forced to pay too high a price for “20 minutes of action.”

To read Turner’s father’s letter is to feel an immediate rush of pure fury. It’s tempting to just go full snark on it, because there is lot here to snark here: from Turner Senior’s lyrical description of Brock’s lost love for steak to his obstinate refusal to actually name his son’s crime, the letter reads like a bad parody of how someone might talk about a rapist. It’s much harder to read the letter earnestly; it feels almost impossible to comprehend that this man truly believes his son is the one deserving of pity. It’s more comfortable to mock — but we can’t just mock. We have to look at — really look at, unsparingly and in detail — all the ways in which Turner’s father’s letter exemplifies how rape culture works.

Rape culture is the idea that sexual assault does not happen in a vacuum, but rather occurs because we are socialized in a way that normalizes and even celebrates sexual victimization of women. In my experience, most men have a twofold reaction to that definition: first they’ll ask how it can be true that rape is normalized if rape is also understood to be one of the worst crimes a person can commit, and second they’ll swear that they, personally, would never. When they say these things they will absolutely believe that they’re speaking the truth. And then a case like Brock Turner’s will come along and present some very uncomfortable challenges to those ideas.

Everyone can agree that rape is objectively wrong, but problems crop up when we try to parse exactly what rape is and under what circumstances it occurs. I’m willing to bet that more than a few men read the victim’s letter and had a pang of recognition — not of her experiences, but his. Because most men have done at least some of what Turner did. They’ve gone to parties with the intention of hooking up with someone; they’ve zeroed in on the vulnerable girls, the drunk girls, the girls who seem like they’d be easy to take home; they’ve assumed that silence or a lack of clear refusal is the same as consent. And when these men read the account of what Brock Turner did, even if they recognize it as awful, there’s a louder voice in their heads saying something like this could have been written about me.

And the brutal truth is, they’re right. A lot of men, a lot of self-professed good men, have done something like what Brock Turner did: maybe not after a frat party, maybe not on the ground behind a dumpster, maybe not with a girl so intoxicated that she was losing consciousness, but maybe not so far off. Perhaps in their case the girl was drunk, yes, but not so very much more drunk than they were, and she seemed to like it and the next morning they went out for breakfast. Perhaps the girl said yes to kissing and touching and even though she froze up when he tried to penetrate her she never actually said no. Perhaps he thought that every yes starts out as a no because someone told him so, or because every movie or TV show he’d seen showed a women having to be cajoled and worn down befor she agreed to sex. Whatever the circumstances, Brock Turner’s story forced them to look at their actions in a new light and what they saw didn’t jive with how they felt about themselves.

And it’s so much easier to say neither of us are rapists than it is to say both of us are rapists.

Most rapists aren’t monsters who lurk behind bushes and in dark alleyways waiting for unsuspecting women to walk by. In fact, statistics show that a woman is far more likely to be assaulted by someone she knows than by a stranger. Most rapists are men we know and like: our neighbors and our colleagues and sometimes even our friends. Men who might admit that things got a little bit out of hand, or that they didn’t mean to go that far but they got caught up in the heat of the moment. Men like my friend’s boyfriend, who once referred to beer as liquid panty remover only to declare minutes later that rapists deserve to be castrated. Men who think that consent is a one-time binary, yes or no, and not an ongoing process of checking in with their partners.

Men we think of as nice guys.

Men who look just like everybody else.

Most rapists aren’t monsters who lurk behind bushes and in dark alleyways waiting for unsuspecting women to walk by.

People often pooh-pooh the idea that we live in a culture where rape is normalized, and yet it’s hard to imagine what other conclusion they might draw from this scenario. A man was found on the ground behind a dumpster with his hand inside the vagina of an unconscious woman. When confronted, the man immediately bolted; he was only caught because one of the people who found him chased and tackled him. The woman, who was listed in the police report as breathing but non-responsive, was covered in cuts and bruises. And yet this man said she had consented; that she had been conscious when he’d started; that she had liked it. The man’s father wrote a letter saying that the consequences for the assault were too strict and that the man felt bad enough as it was. His letter did not mention the feelings of the woman his son had assaulted; another letter, written by the man’s friend, implied that the woman was inventing her charges, and blamed political correctness for the whole brouhaha. When the case went to trial the jury found him guilty of three counts of sexual assault, and the man faced a maximum of 14 years in prison. The judge shortened the sentence to six months in a county jail with probation, saying that the impact of a longer sentence would be too “severe.”

And the worst part is, this feels like a best case scenario. In fact, there’s a small part of me that is still somewhat shocked that a white man from a well-connected family was convicted at all.

But please, tell me again about how our society takes rape very seriously.

Brock Turner’s father might be right that he does not have a violent past. It might, in fact, be accurate to say that up until the events of January 17th, 2015, Brock Turner had led an exemplary life. It’s possible that at the time Turner did not consider what he was doing to be sexual assault. But it was. The fact that he’s not a violent monster doesn’t mean he isn’t a rapist. He’s a rapist because he committed a rape. If these nice men who kind of sort of identify with what he did committed rapes, they’re rapists too.

And this is what we need to talk about over and over: the fact that nice boys from nice families commit rape. The fact that assault can happen even when the rapist does not “feel like” he is committing rape, because someone told him that attacks like the one Brock Turner committed are just normal romance. The fact that Brock Turner’s feelings seem to have greatly trumped those of the woman he assaulted.

We need to talk about how so many reactions to stories like these center the mens’ feelings.

And then we need to talk about how we can drown out those voices with the voices of survivors.

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