Beating the Blame Game in the Stanford Rape Case

“I don’t think that it’s fair to base the fate of the next 10+ years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him.”

--- Leslie Rasmussen, Friend of Brock Turner

He has no prior criminal history and has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th 2015. Brock can do so many positive things as a contributor to society and is totally committed to educating other college age students about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.

---  Dan A. Turner, Father of Brock Turner

“Brock is the only person being held accountable for the actions of other adults.”

--- Carolyn and Richard Bradfield, Grandparents of Brock Turner

“There is no doubt Brock made a mistake that night – he made a mistake in drinking to the point where he could not fully appreciate that his female acquaintance was so intoxicated.”

--- Margaret Quinn, Turner Family Friend

Whew. It sounds like Brock Turner has been through a lot. It must be really traumatizing to lose so much because of some “mistakes.”  Because of  “alcohol and sexual promiscuity.” Because of “the actions of other adults.”

Brock Turner was facing as many as 14 years in prison when these statements were submitted to the court as character references for the convicted rapist. As we can see, the people in Turner’s life thought this was very unfair. “These verdicts have broken and shattered him,” Turner’s dad reports. In Turner’s own words, he’s lost everything – he’s lost his life.

The way these statements are framed, the natural conclusion is that someone or something besides Brock Turner is really to blame here. Alcohol. A party culture. A “girl who doesn’t remember anything besides the amount she drank.”

And the judge in this case certainly seems to agree that Brock Turner isn’t really one of those dangerous rapists. “The character letters that have been submitted do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner,” said Judge Aaron Persky as he sentenced Turner to six months in county jail and probation for his crimes instead of the six years in state prison sought by the prosecution for his felony convictions. “There is less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is…intoxicated,” Persky said.  

This prominent rape case is just the latest example of the pervasive victim blaming our culture engages in when it comes to sexual assault and rape.

What is victim blaming? We like this definition: Victim blaming occurs when the victim(s) of a crime, an accident or any type of abusive maltreatment are held entirely or partially responsible for the transgressions committed against them (regardless of whether the victim actually had any responsibility for the incident).

For 15 years, Catharsis Productions has been fighting victim blaming beliefs on college campuses, in the military and in our culture as a whole.  Why? Because these beliefs hinder bystander intervention when violence is being committed. They contribute to the re-victimization of survivors and block access to help and healing. They keep perpetrators from being held accountable and threaten everyone’s safety and well-being.

OK, you might be saying. But those statements about Brock Turner aren’t totally blaming the victim – they’re just saying that Turner isn’t solely responsible for what happened that night. Both he and the woman were drinking, right?

In fact, these are some of the more insidious and deep-seated beliefs that make up victim blaming.

First of all – alcohol and the “hook up” or “party” culture.

This includes two arguments that don’t really make sense when you take them together:

“He didn’t know what he was doing – he was drunk!”

And:

“She should have known what would happen if she got drunk!”

Can you imagine if we applied these arguments to crimes other than rape? If you were intoxicated while legally crossing the street at a crosswalk and were hit by a drunk driver, who’s at fault? The drunk driver.

Crime is not the natural consequence of drinking alcohol. Why do we continue to excuse away rape just because the victim or perpetrator was drunk? 

The bottom line is: you are responsible for what you do when you’re drunk, not what someone else chooses to do to you when you are drunk.

The second victim blaming belief that is a clear theme in the character statements about Brock Turner is that this rape was just a mistake – he was a good guy, a good student, a good swimmer. These verdicts, and by extension, the victim is ruining his career, ruining his life.

If you had been the victim of rape at Stanford after this trial, if you were reading these statements would it make you more likely or less likely to press charges? Would you doubt your own culpability? Would you feel bad about ruining another person’s whole life?

But flip that statement on its head – how did Brock Turner’s choices affect not only his life but his victim’s life? How did his choices affect the lives of everyone on Stanford’s campus?

Brock Turner’s actions ruined his victim’s life. Not only that, Brock Turner’s actions made Stanford’s entire campus less safe. By holding him accountable we as a society make it less likely for others to make the same choices.

So what can you do when confronted with victim blaming beliefs pertaining to this rape case or others?

  • Gut check: consider and confront your own personal biases and fears. When people believe that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place, they are more likely to believe that people get what they deserve. That’s not always the case.
  • Call out instances of victim blaming in your personal and professional life.
  • Help survivors get the assistance and resources they need. Here’s a good list.
  • Live the bystander concept: care about what happens in your community and know that you have the power to make a difference.

There are two stories of heroism in this case. The first is that the survivor had the strength and ability to write an eloquent and passionate statement to the court about how Brock Turner’s actions have negatively affected her life. We call her a survivor, not a victim. The word survivor speaks to her courage. It took courage for her to learn of the details of the attack and to tell her parents and sister that someone hurt her. Some mornings it probably took courage to get out of bed. It took courage to get through the year leading to the trial. On top of all of that, it took courage to write that powerful statement and to read it out loud – in court—in front of Brock Turner and his supporters. She also chose to make her statement public so that she may be a source of strength for other survivors. She is a hero.

Second, graduate students Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson encountered Brock Turner raping someone and they intervened. They saw him doing something that they knew was wrong, they recognized they had the responsibility to do something and they acted: they called out to him, they chased him when he ran, they held him while they waited for help and they attended to the unconscious victim. They set a perfect example for what bystanders should do when they encounter a violent or potentially violent situation. They are heroes.

YOU can be a hero too. Speak out. Intervene. Make a difference. 

Catharsis Productions

Catharsis Productions' mission is to change the world by producing innovative, accessible and 
research-supported programming that challenges oppressive attitudes and shifts behavior.