Reading about the Brock Turner case was an infuriating and painful experience for many of us. There were new reports everyday and we heard from past victims about their sexual assault experiences across campuses through social media platforms and news channels. We also got to read the victim impact statement by the victim (referred to as Emily Doe) Statement here: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/06/stanford-sexual-assault-case-victim-impact-statement-in-full and it elicited an emotional response from many of us. Studying Brock Turner’s trial reveals a great many contradictions in the American justice system, and points to the power of privilege in society overall. This article aims to look at five issues and biases that exist and ultimately benefitted Brock Turner and resulted in a very lenient sentence.
Race: White Privilege
Brock Turner is a white male. That is the ideal position to be in in America. When the case became public, the first images released of Brock were his headshots from Stanford as a student and swimmer. If Brock Turner was black, the first images to be released would have been mugshots. The media agencies and reporters had to request authorities multiple times to get Turner’s mugshots and only got them 18 MONTHS after the arrest. To put this into context, Shailene Woodley (Divergent fame actress) was arrested over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend for attending a peaceful protest and her headshot was splashed all across the media within less than 24 hours. The
American criminal justice system is designed to help and protect offenders like Turner, while prosecuting dissenters like Woodley and the 26 other protesters she was arrested with. The first thing media and “pundits” talked about in regards to Turner’s case was not his 2014 offence for possessing alcohol underage or the fact that at the time of the assault, he was underage and had a drug and alcohol history. Turner’s past transgressions were not mentioned until much later in the case. Instead,they discussed his potential and talent as a swimmer. If Brock Turner was a black male, the first details to be uttered would be his prior arrests, rough upbringing and childhood, sketchy friends, unstable family life, mental health issues etc. Brock Turner’s race privilege provided him the benefit of doubt and the principle, “Innocent, until proven guilty” was applied and followed by nearly everyone involved.
Gender: Male Privilege
Sexual assault survivors are not taken seriously in the criminal justice system. A defence attorney aims to discredit them and invalidate their experience and story. Sexual assault cases focus on the personal life of the survivor and every effort is made to exploit every aspect of the survivor’s experience. The survivor of Brock Turner’s assault was asked questions like, “ Did you drink in college?” “You said you were a party animal?” “Did you party at frats? “Are you serious with your boyfriend?” “ Are you sexually active with him?” “Do you have a history of cheating?” “Do you remember any more from that night?” The process of victim blaming is in no way unique to America. In Canada, a judge asked a survivor, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” as a question to “understand” the nature of the assault. He indirectly and very insensitively blamed the survivor for what she went through. The legal system’s aim is to skew the narrative’s focus to the survivor and blame them for the situation they are in. Let’s clarify this quickly. No matter what someone is wearing, you will never possess the right to assault them. Someone’s sexual history does not justify assaulting them or forcing them to have sex without their explicit consent. The amount of alcohol someone has consumed does not equal the right to assault. The justice system is biased towards men and puts an extreme amount of burden on the survivor and their legal team to prove the case.
Socio-economic status: Class Privilege
Although the exact financial status of Turner’s parents is unknown, it is safe to assume the Turners are well-off. He went to an elite institution and was a member of a prestigious swimming team and could dole out the bucks for an upscale and very expensive defence attorney. This helped Turner to position himself as a non-threatening, aspiring Olympic swimmer who made a dumb mistake that should not be punished harshly. Let’s remember that if Turner went to a public institution or community college and was not white (race privilege again), he would have been portrayed differently and would not have had the chance to hire an attorney but be assigned a public defender whose job it is to work plea bargains regardless of actual guilt.
The failed Justice System
The criminal justice system commonly fails to protect sexual assault survivors and Turner’s case is a glaring example of this. Judge Aaron Persky was the one who sentenced Brock Turner. Brock could have gone to jail for up to 14 years. The prosecution asked for six years. Judge Persky happened to be more concerned about the wellbeing of Turner and how the sentence will have a “severe impact” on Turner and his swimming career. He asserted that Turner is a not a danger to others. This ruling came after the very emotional and heartfelt 7000 words victim impact statement read by the survivor in court. This case and the Canadian case of Justice Robin Camp are only two of many examples where the justice system has failed survivors and has not adequately punished the rapist. The justice system puts the burden of proof on the prosecution and essentially the survivor. Why are questions about clothes, drinking habits, past and present relationships, lifestyle, partying not asked of the defendant? Why is their version given more importance than the survivor? Brock Turner is a convicted rapist and it is unfortunate that his lenient sentence is something to be celebrated because most cases do not end up in trial and even fewer end with a conviction for the defendant. As lenient as the sentence is, it is a rarity.
There is a major problem in our society where terms like “Boys will be boys” is an acceptable defence for men to utilize to defend sexual violence against women. Recently, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that he engaged in “locker room talk” when a tape of him talking about his star status and ability to do whatever he wants to women surfaced. Many leaders in the Republican party accepted his amazing non-apology before and during the second debate. Trump referred to ISIS and Hillary Clinton’s emails as the “more important issues” to talk about. Even at Western, we had the incident where some students found it a great prank to put up a disturbing poster that normalizes rape. The student government did a great job of responding to it but the first response from a university official was actually along the lines of “Boys will be boys”. Of course, the university took their sweet time to give a meaningful comment. In the case of Brock Turner, his father talked about his son’s happy-go-lucky attitude and how he is deeply impacted by the events of January 17 and 18, 2015. Dan Turner talked about his rapist son’s cooking skills and fondness for steak. He also said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” This is rape culture. Blaming alcohol consumption for his son’s horrific actions is normalizing rape culture. According to Dan Turner, people like his son are perfect ambassadors to speak out on binge drinking and it’s “unfortunate” results. As much as binge drinking is a worry, there is no legitimate way for someone to blame alcohol for someone’s decision to rape an innocent person.
Rape culture is normalized every time a university fails to make appropriate timely comments about “jokes” like the one at Western. Rape culture is normalized and further ingrained into our society when universities make survivors sign non-disclosure agreements and practically force them to not share their stories.Rape culture is normalized everytime someone justifies a light punishment with the term “20 minutes of action” and how their son will never enjoy steak or food the same way again. Rape culture is normalized when the extra curricular activities of the defendant are discussed in the same breath as their crime. It is time to educate our sons to respect women and understand what consent is and how it works if we want to end the culture of rape. Let’s not tell our daughters to not go out alone after dark, be careful about what they decide to wear, not drink at all. Let’s instead tell our sons to not take girls behind dumpsters and violate them when they are slurring words, unable to give consent. Let’s teach our sons that locker room talk should not be about assaulting women. Let’s teach our sons that “boys will be boys” is an invalid excuse. Maybe once we do that, rape culture will cease to exist.
The victim of Brock Turner is a survivor. Brock Turner is not. It was not alcohol that night that caused Turner to do what he did. He is a rapist first who happens to be really good at swimming. Mr. Dan Turner, Yes, 20 minutes of NON CONSENSUAL and UNCONSENTED action should be punished. Judge Persky, it is not the “severe” impact of a long jail sentence on Turner that society should be worried or bothered about. It is the impact on that girl that we should be enraged about. Society and this world will not become a safer place until we recognize that sexual assault is serious, it is wrong and it is absolutely unacceptable and reprehensible behaviour that should be punished severely.