In a previous blog, I talked about how media is one our teachers and that it influences our beliefs and attitudes. Who are our other teachers? Who teaches us what we believe? Where do we get our values? The case of Stanford freshman student athlete, Brock Turner, is a perfect example of how beliefs and attitudes not only influence one's willingness to commit crimes like sexual assault but also how seriously our society takes those crimes.
Turner was indicted in January 2015 after using a finger to penetrate an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the Stanford campus. Turner was discovered by two Stanford students from Sweden who intervened because the woman appeared to be unconscious; Turner fled, but the students caught and restrained Turner after chasing him until police arrived. Turner was convicted in March 2016 and sentenced in June 2016 to six months of imprisonment and three years of probation for his crimes but is up for release in three months despite being convicted of three felonies including assault with intent to rape and facing a maximum of 14 years in prison. So, how did we get here? Who in Brock's life taught him that it was okay to commit rape? And, what do Brock's teachers teach us about our society and us?
One example of what taught Brock Turner that his behavior was okay was all the talk of Brock Turner’s promise. After all, he was a three time All American swimmer in high school. And, that “promising” swimming career helped paved the way for a sentence that can only be seen as a slap on the wrist. He might be a star athlete and a future Olympian, and we would not want to ruin that. For example, Turner’s father wrote in a letter that his son should not have to go to prison for as he had “already paid a steep price…for 20 minutes of action”. Dan Turner also said his son’s life was “deeply altered” forever. “He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile…his every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite”. Those statements are still shocking to me. I get a father being concerned for his child, but the absence of accountability says nothing displaying contrition for the survivor or how she was impacted. Above all, the beliefs and attitudes stated by Turner's father make it clear why Brock Turner chose to sexually assault an unconscious woman; Brock didn't see his choice to commit sexual assault as committing a crime, but he saw that choice as "twenty minutes of action." In other words, equating rape with "action" is a belief that supports sexual violence.
But, there is something else going on here. Where else did Brock Turner get the idea to sexually assault this young woman? Who else taught him that? Just like his father taught Brock that he was just getting some “action,” his other teachers are his friends, teammates, and peer groups. Teachers that taught Brock that it was okay to say to one of his female teammates, “I can see your titties” in that swimsuit by not challenging or interrupting that. In another letter, Brock's friend wrote, "where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists." The letter went on to say that "this is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgment”. So, instead of focusing on Brock’s behavior, we are talking about clouded judgment. This is the epitome of victim blaming! Victim blaming is never okay. Frankly, the amount of alcohol the victim had to drink should have absolutely no bearing on Brock Turner’s choice to sexually assault her. But, here is a perfect example of how culture is a teacher. Moreover, culture is our teacher as our interpersonal relationships shape our moral code and tell us what is okay and what is not okay. Culture helps shape our beliefs and attitudes. The work of sexual violence prevention is vital because this is a perfect example of Brock’s close relationships failing to send him clear messages about consent and sexual violence. We know that a person’s closest social circle, peers, partners, family members, and friends influence behavior and reinforce our beliefs and attitudes. Of course, Brock committed rape if his father equated sexual assault with “action.” Of course, Brock committed rape if his friends say “he was always the sweetest to everyone” and minimize his crimes. Of course, Brock committed rape if none of his male teammates challenged him about his comments regarding his teammate's body while wearing her swimsuit. Of course, Brock committed rape because culture influences us when we are exposed to beliefs and attitudes that support sexual violence.
Part of me is at a loss for words because I am saddened, but not surprised by the outcome of this case. Brock's teachers just happen to be saying what too many of us believe. There has to be some hope in this. What if as a society we believed that being a star or having "promise" does not excuse one from doing awful things. What if there had been prevention strategies delivered before Brock ever arrived at Stanford that were designed to reduce conflict, develop problem-solving skills, and promote healthy relationships? What if Brock’s dad had received parenting classes about how to talk to his son about sex and consent? What if we gave all families access to parenting and family focused prevention programs? What if social norms like equality and respect were promoted? What would it have meant if one of Brock's male teammates said to him something like, "making comments about our teammate's bodies is not something we do on this team. I'm surprised you said that and I feel less respect for you?" That is bystander intervention. What if Brock's friends had gotten messaging that guys that are seemingly "the sweetest to everyone" can be rapists too? That "sweetness" can mask a hostility towards women and girls, anti social tendencies, or a propensity to commit violence. What if Brock's friends had been taught that victim blaming is never okay and that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults don't involve kidnapping and dark parking lots, but someone known to the victim. What if as a society folks were taught the message that rape happens because people choose to commit rape? What if as a society folks were taught that judgment clouded by alcohol does not make people commit rape, but that rapists use alcohol as a tool to get away with their crimes? What if as a society folks were taught clear messages about consent and sexual violence? This is why we have so much work to do.