What The Stanford Case Tells Us About The Rape Crisis We Face Today

Photo: David Madison/Getty Images.
Stanford University's Hoover Tower rises above the Stanford campus.
Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, lawyer, and political commentator. The views expressed here are her own.

The nation has been captivated by the case of a former freshman swimming star at Stanford University who, after being found guilty of viciously sexually assaulting an unconscious woman next to a Dumpster behind a fraternity, was given a paltry six-month prison sentence. With good behavior, he could be released in just 90 days.

There are so many disturbing elements about this case, but what may be most disturbing is that it’s not, in fact, all that extraordinary. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, someone is sexually assaulted in America every two minutes. One out of every six American women will be raped, or experience an attempted rape during her lifetime. And 80 to 90% of survivors know their attackers.

This case seems unimaginably horrible, but the simple fact is it’s unimaginably normal. If anything, what’s unusual in this case is that there was a case at all. There often aren’t witnesses to sexual assault, making convictions even more rare. Only between 8% and 37% of rapes ever result in prosecution.

So, given the realities of rape and rape culture that the Stanford case reinforces, what larger conclusions should we draw about the crisis? Here are five.
Advertisement

Instead of attacking the idea of rape culture, we need to be attacking rape.

The Burden Is Still On The Survivor
Not only was the survivor scrutinized throughout the case for her level of intoxication and sexual history, but it’s important to bear in mind that the trial — and Brock Turner’s paltry sentence — would not have received the level of national attention it has without the survivor writing and later publishing her survivor impact statement.

It’s only because she made that decision that we’re even talking about the case today. And arguably only because her statement was so powerfully and beautifully written. The actions and qualities of a rape survivor should not be the deciding factor in whether they get justice, but here we are.

"Sweet," "Respectful," "Good Kids" Rape
In a letter supporting Turner, a childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen wrote that she couldn’t imagine her friend was a rapist because he’s “such a sweetheart and a very smart kid.” As though you can't be smart and also a rapist. That may be partly something we tell ourselves to feel safe, or reinforce society’s stereotypes about certain “nice” (white, successful) people around us, but rape wouldn't be as widespread a problem if a rapist was just one kind of person.

Only between 8% and 37% of rapes ever result in prosecution.

Bystanders Can and Must Stand Up
Turner may have never been prosecuted, let alone convicted, had it not been for the actions of two graduate students who saw him on top of a motionless body in the shadows and — instead of just riding by on their bicycles — decided to stop and do something about it. Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arndt yelled at Turner, who took off running. They chased him, caught up with him and tripped him, and then held him until police arrived. They’re true heroes, but I wish they were the more ordinary part of this case. We should all stand up and speak out whenever we see sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Sports and Fraternities Have A Problem
In February, the president of a fraternity at Cornell University in New York was arrested on charges of rape. In March, the president of a fraternity at Baylor University in Texas was charged with raping a woman at a fraternity party and then leaving her unconscious body lying on the ground. In April, a football player at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee was found guilty of raping a woman who was unconscious. The trials of three other football players allegedly involved in the assault are still pending.

In May
, a group of white high school football players in Idaho were charged with sexually assaulting a Black, disabled teammate with a coat hanger. And honestly, that’s just a smattering of many, many examples. No, not all male athletes are rapists, and no, not all fraternity parties are rape scenes. But the toxic masculinity that often pervades sports and fraternity culture bears some scrutiny.

the toxic masculinity that often pervades sports and fraternity culture bears some scrutiny.

Advertisement
Rape Culture Is More Than Just Rape
Rape culture is a term meant to capture the subtle and often not-so-subtle ways that society blames women for sexual assault while normalizing male sexual violence. Rape culture is evident in the fact that the rape survivor's past was even admissible in court. It’s certainly evident in the light sentence handed down by Judge Aaron Persky who worried that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on” Turner.

And rape culture is dripping in the letter Turner’s father wrote to the court lamenting how “20 minutes of action” has “deeply altered” his son’s life. As though his son was passive, the one being altered — as opposed to the one doing the altering. It’s not like someone took Brock’s “happy-go-lucky self with that easygoing personality and welcoming smile” — he did that to himself when he did immeasurably worse to the woman he attacked.

80% to 90% of survivors knew their attackers.

Turner’s father seems callous to the horrors committed by the young man he raised. Referring to a passage in the letter in which Turner’s father says he misses grilling steak with his son, Mashable’s Chris Taylor wrote, “If you teach your son to cook a good steak before you teach him to respect women and treat them as human beings at all times, you have failed at life.”

Writing a letter to the court prosecuting your son for rape that emphasizes the suffering of your son and doesn’t mention one word about the suffering he caused — that is rape culture. Instead of attacking the idea of rape culture, we need to be attacking rape.

More Refinery29 Coverage of the Stanford Case:

These Two Heroes Stopped The Stanford Sexual Assault
Rapist Blames "Peer Pressure" & "Party Culture" For The Assault He Committed
Father's Statement Defending His Sex-Offender Son Gets A Much-Needed Rewrite
Advertisement