contradictions and consequences: thoughts on the Stanford case


Like many others in the last few weeks I have been unable to get the Brock Turner/Stanford rape case out of my mind.

There is so much to say about this case, and much of it has been said in the media and across the internet – which is notable in of itself. For a rape case to be discussed so widely in the media, with the widespread and dominant opinion being that the sentence was too short and that the attacker has got away too lightly, heralds a huge shift in public thinking about rape, sexual assault and victim blaming.

As “Tea Consent” goes viral again, with its clear message of “unconscious people cannot consent”, and as a former heavy drinker who started writing a blog specifically to deal with my attempt to give up drinking, and as someone who passed out drunk and woke up to discover someone performing a sexual act on me, I have a few things to say about this case myself.

When a woman is violated, we measure her worth against her past.

When a man violates a woman, we measure his worth against his future.

The way the perpetrator was initially portrayed in the media as a talented swimmer typifies our habit of prioritising men’s potential over women’s bodies. Much was made in the press of Turner’s swim times, of his talent and his potential. We’ve seen this time and time again – talented men in academia, sport & entertainment getting a pass for acts of violence, either alleged or proven, against women because they’re talented or gifted. Why is talent or ability seen as a get out of jail free (or early) card?  Why are these men’s careers and potential so much more valuable to us than a woman’s body?  And why are rape victims sexual pasts dragged up in court, as if what the woman got up to in her own free time is any sort of reason for a man to decide he doesn’t need to hear her say “yes”?

In delivering a pathetic 6 month sentence to Turner, what the judge is effectively saying is that there’s little point in women reporting their sexual assault, because even if there’s plenty of evidence, witnesses, little grey area; even in those circumstances the perpetrator is not going to face significant legal consequence. This is why women don’t report sexual assaults. The report rate is low. The conviction rate is low. Women are routinely disbelieved and treated as liars; “innocent until proven guilty” seems to mean that the victim is “a liar until proven honest“, and thus if the case never gets to court she’s always a liar. In this case there were even witnesses to the attack. If we are not to expect serious consequences for rapists even in a case which is so clear, how can any woman feel safe reporting her attacker and seeing it through the court system when the cards are so totally stacked against her?

Rape is a monstrous act therefore rapists are monsters

My boy isn’t a monster, so he can’t be rapist

Yousef Erakat "Public Rape Experiment"Turner’s father, who considers an act of penetration and attempted rape “20 minutes of action”, said that his son had “never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night”.  Rape is always a violent act, Mr Turner. By definition. There may not be any force used, there might not even be any pain inflicted. But by definition, rape or any sexual act without consent is a violence. It is a violation against a person’s body. Regardless of how much force was used by Brock Tuner that night (and the medical reports would seem to suggest it wasn’t exactly a gentle experience)  it remains a fact that this was an attempted rape, it was a sexual assault, and therefore this was a violence committed against Emily Doe’s body.  Turner’s sister said “Brock is a kind, quiet, talented, hard-working, deeply caring, sensitive, peculiar, inquisitive, and most importantly, vulnerable young man” as if this somehow meant he couldn’t possibly also be a rapist. Tuner’s family seem to be labouring under the same delusion as George Lawlor, the university student who objected to the idea of consent classes at university on the grounds that he didn’t look like a rapist.

The idea that rapists are all violent monsters, hanging around on street corners with knives ready to pounce on women walking alone is a dangerous myth that needs to be put down.  90% of rapes are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. Which means that there’s an extremely high chance that Lawlor does in fact look like a rapist might look, and that quiet, talented, hard-working, deeply caring, sensitive, peculiar, inquisitive, vulnerable people can be rapists too.

When a woman drinks, if something happens to her, it’s her fault for being drunk.

When a man drinks, it’s not his fault if he does something.

emiliydoe_tweetTurner and his family were very keen to blame his actions on alcohol and partying, as if he was somehow forced to rape a woman while a bottle of vodka stood over him with a gun going “digitally penetrate this woman forcefully or I’ll cut you”. Sorry, I am not buying it.

As someone who gave up drinking for a year when I realised my alcohol use was dangerously out of control I can tell you straight up that alcohol doesn’t make you do anything. It’s a great excuse for bad behaviour, but it’s not a reason. I call these “drunkscuses”.  This idea that anything you do has to be excused because you were drunk is a dangerous one. There’s nothing in ethanol – the part of alcohol that makes you drunk – that inherently makes us sexually promiscuous, violent or anti-social. It DOES lower inhibitions, so if you were pre-disposed to, say, dance on tables, but stopped yourself from doing it while sober because you know you might break a table and be barred from the pub for doing it then it’s likely that after 5 Tequila slammers you’d be up on that table doing the Macarena like nobody’s watching until you break a table and get thrown out of the pub and told never to come back. The alcohol didn’t break that table and it didn’t get you barred, and it didn’t make you get up on the table in the first place. What the alcohol does is remove your fear of the consequences.  And that’s what you have here with Brock Turner.  He has consequences.  Consequences that he didn’t care about when drinking heavily, but they are nonetheless consequences of his actions.

The judge may have tried to lessen the legal consequences for Turner, but in doing so in a way, he’s actually made it so much worse. Think about it, if Turner had been convicted for, say, 5 years. Would it have been covered in the press? Would the statement of victim “Emily Doe” have been published? Would anyone have thought anything untoward about a rapist serving 5 years (probably 2.5 for good behaviour)? Probably not. But in giving a six month sentence – meaning Turner (assuming good behaviour) will be out long before Christmas- it hit the news in a a big way. Everyone knows Turner’s face. He’ll never represent the US no matter how fast a swimmer he is. The judge may have thought that Turner didn’t deserve harsh consequences for his actions; but in delivering his overly lenient sentence he’s sentenced Turner to judgement by the eyes of the world, and the world is far less forgiving or likely to be swayed by the family’s letters about what a nice boy he is.

Emily Doe’s victim impact statement broke my heart. It made me cry repeatedly, and at one point I nearly threw up. How clearly she puts into words how such a violation affects you. How clearly  she describes how women are expected to constantly police our own behaviour to minimise a risk that is posed to us by other people, yet no expectations are thrown upon them to minimise their own risk. How brave must she be to have read that out to a full court room, knowing how many cards are stacked against rape victims and how her past behaviour would be framed against her, placed on weighing scales to be balanced against the “future potential” of her attacker. She had to read that statement out to his friends and family who’d written those letters to the judge asking to mitigate his punishment because he was just such a nice boy. So talented. He’s a really fast swimmer. Poor boy, he’s off his steak. She read that statement out to people who couldn’t understand how their boy could do something so dreadful, and tried in their heads and letters to re-write the scenario so that their boy didn’t do something so dreadful. It was the alcohol that made him do it. Ok, he might have touched her but he’s not one of those rapist rapists. He’s a good boy who made a mistake.

Emily Doe – whoever you are – you are a hero. You wrote this. You spoke it out loud. You put into words the thoughts and hearts of millions of victims of sexual violence and you said it right into the eyes of the person who violated your body and the people who would try to paint a revisionist history over that violation in order to make it anyone’s fault but his own. Your awful experience has shone a blinding light onto what “rape culture” means and has the whole world talking not about what a victim did or should have done, but on what the perpetrator did and how he was protected by family and the justice system and by a culture that places the talent and future potential of a man over the bodily integrity and well-being of a woman. Thank you.



  1. “In delivering a pathetic 6 month sentence to Turner, what the judge is effectively saying is that there’s little point in women reporting their sexual assault, because even if there’s plenty of evidence, witnesses, little grey area; even in those circumstances the perpetrator is not going to face significant legal consequence.”

    Thanks for putting in to words what I have been struggling to mentally tease out from this case, but I think that summarises it quite succinctly. There are various problems this case highlights, but that, I think was the one I couldn’t quite pick out. It’s comforting to think the judge has inadvertently given much harsher consequences than he intended, but it does occur to me there must be some sort of ‘sweet spot’ in lenient sentencing, not so light as to draw attention, but lighter than is warranted.

  2. The one adjective used by his sister that really stuck out to me was “peculiar”. I would say he goes beyond peculiar when he is drunk and I totally agree with how you explained alcohol not making you a rapist. He had this inclination and then acted when he was drunk. It just shows, again, how sexist our country, especially our legal system can be.
    Thanks for you wonderful words. You put it perfectly.

  3. I am glad that this particular case has caught the attention of the media and sparked so much outrage. I believe that is largely down to the bravery of Emily Doe and her victim impact statement being released. I don’t know how anyone could be failed to be moved by what she wrote. Justice is supposed to be blind but it was blinded by privilege and success in this case. This is, of course, just one case of many in which the victim of sexual violence does not experience justice. A dear friend of mine was drugged, raped, brutalised last year and despite all of the evidence her case did not even make it to court before it was dropped. Time and time again the system fails victims. Worse, it revictimises them. As you point out, it is not small wonder that the rapes that are reported are the tip of an iceberg of unreported experiences of sexual violence. How can people trust a broken system? (It is, of course, broken in many other ways including failing people accused of crimes and through a lack of parity in sentencing but that is a whole other debate.)

    I hope that what we are experiencing right now with the outrage this case has sparked is one of those culture shifts we sometimes witness as bystanders to history. I hope that outrage translates into action and into reform. I hope that people feel moved to no longer be bystanders to dangerous situations as they unfold. I hope that lessons start to be learned about the importance of teaching consent, body autonomy, and respect from an early age. I hope that every parent who gasped with horror at the parents who callously defended their son thinks about the messages they communicate to their own sons and daughters. I desperately hope for change.

  4. The father’s comment struck me like a knife…”for 20 minutes of action…” How can we still be stuck so far in the past in 2016? Have they not been learning and processing in their lives? How can these events lead a human being to such a statement?
    Lord, help us…

  5. “In delivering a pathetic 6 month sentence to Turner, what the judge is effectively saying is that there’s little point in women reporting their sexual assault, because even if there’s plenty of evidence, witnesses, little grey area; even in those circumstances the perpetrator is not going to face significant legal consequence.”

    What total nonsense. He’s going to prison for six months where he risks sexual abuse himself. He’s permanently listed as a sex offender and all the implications of that. He will be permanently listed as a felon and that goes on all job applications and will be noted by colleges after he gets out of prison if he tries to continue his education. Both the felony and sex offender status are permanent legal consequences to his reputation. He is going to be having his own nightmares about the entire process, being in prison, etc. This effects him for the rest of his life, not just six months. This is NOT to say he isn’t totally responsible for these consequences. It is only to point out the ridiculousness of claiming they are inconsequential.

    These consequences are definitely significant. This case shows that in what people are decrying as a abuse of justice that there was still a point to the victim coming forward in reporting their sexual abuse.

    In addition the fact that he is known and well publicized due to offender status other women have the means to protect themselves from him. It is highly unlikely he will be invited to any parties anymore and given access to drunk women.

    Shame on you for using this to justify women not coming forward.

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