By now most will be aware of the general circumstances surrounding the case of Brock Turner, dubbed the Stanford rapist. The details of his coldblooded attack behind a campus dumpster have been widely disseminated, as has the news of his indictment in January 2015 on five charges, although the two most severe were eventually dropped. Most outrageous was his sentencing: instead of the six years the prosecutors sought, Turner was given as many months.
Now, only three months after Turner was sentenced, he has been released on good behavior, sparking another national firestorm.
It has been easy to identify the main villains of the story. The main antagonist, Turner himself,
was a star athlete at a prestigious university, a trope all-too-familiar for a campus assault. He was caught red-handed by witnesses, but through a combination of divergent testimonies, he and his defense attempted to portray him as the victim of alcohol abuse, and his true victim as collateral damage. A supporting villainous role was filled by the offender’s father, Dan Turner, who was rightly castigated for his statement in a letter that any punishment for his son would be a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” The senior Turner is no doubt partly responsible for raising a rapist, given such rhetoric.
The judge who sentenced Turner has also been widely identified as a villain. Much of the controversy surrounding the Turner case focuses on the sentence handed down by Judge Aaron Persky, the six-month stint in county jail that seemed, to many, to be a slap on the wrist. A previous case in which he had allowed a risqué photograph of a rape victim to be shown to the jury upon the defendants’ request, to contest the idea that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was unearthed, calling Persky’s judgement further into question. Persky faced extreme public backlash and petitions for his recall, an effort that has not yet succeeded, and has asked to hear no more criminal cases, getting a reassignment to civil court.
Now, with the rapist out of jail after serving only half of his short sentence, outrage against Persky seems justified. But perhaps that outrage is slightly misled.
Another culprit that has widely,and correctly, been identified as being at the root of Turner’s crime and punishment has been rape culture. Rape culture, a somewhat surprisingly controversial term that describes the tendency of sexual violence to be facilitated and excused in our modern culture, is on display at almost every level of the Turner case. The repeated inclusions of Turner’s athletic achievements by his defense, for example, as a reason to be more lenient or show more mercy, are a dead giveaway. Turner’s attempt to scapegoat alcohol, and imply that his victim was equally culpable, are also revealing. The comments by his father, characterizing the rape as “20 minutes of action,” are another betrayal of the influence of rape culture.
In an influential letter read in court and published by multiple news outlets, Turner’s unidentified victim wrote eloquently about her experience of the assault, the ensuing investigation and the trial.
She detailed the examination she was subject to by Turner’s defense, the array of humiliating questions, focus on her behavior instead of the behavior of her rapist and attempts to portray her as a promiscuous alcoholic. The letter serves as a powerful indictment of rape culture, and a harrowing look at how it can influence an innocent woman’s life.
While Persky may have given Turner a lenient sentence, is that truly the issue we should take great exception with? There is some suggestion that Persky’s leniency was influenced by rape culture, but he is also valued by public defenders for his leniency to disadvantaged defendants, a check against mass incarceration. Would a much lengthier sentence have prevented Turner from reoffending, or deterred other would-be rapists in the future? There’s no reason to conclude so. The National Institute of Justice finds, for example, that sending an offender to prison is not an effective deterrent and that the severity of a punishment in general has little deterring influence, and time in prison increases the chance of a repeat offense.
While it is imperative, in the wake of the Turner release, that we combat rape culture, attacking lenient sentencing seems misguided. We should make every effort to fight cultural elements that condition a rapist, facilitate a rape, and discount a woman’s testimony before sentencing even occurs. The NIJ has concluded that “research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.” If we can fight against rape culture, and ensure would-be rapists that they will be caught if they become violent, people like Brock Turner will be disempowered and deterred from perpetrating the kind of violence that permanently affects lives.