Ryan Roose: We need to change our attitudes toward rape

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 7:31pm

The controversial six-month sentencing for Stanford swimmer Brock Turner and the language used by the defendant and the judge have revealed the societal indifference toward rape. In this case, and in current culture in general, there is a dismissal of the credibility of the survivor by questioning whether the survivor’s actions may have provoked or enabled the attack. While these questions are common, they are part of a cultural indifference toward rape that fails to hold perpetrators accountable and subsequently invalidates the suffering of the survivor.

After reading the survivor’s letter to Turner, which was read aloud in court, we can see that the initial report attempts to minimize the severity of Turner’s actions by listing his swimming lap times and his numerous extracurriculars. This, more than anything, seems like an attempt to evoke sympathy for Turner. In reality, the individual in need of support is the survivor, not Turner. As the survivor indicates, these statistics were listed immediately after the description of the rape. By doing this, the author of the article tried to avoid painting him as a criminal. He may have raped an unconscious woman, but other than that, he is really just a successful student-athlete.

What’s more alarming are the questions the survivor was asked in court. As her letter indicates, she was asked how much she drank and what she was wearing. In reality, these questions are irrelevant. They play on the idea that perhaps she was partially responsible for his actions. The mentality is that since she was drinking, she was letting her guard down. The defense was trying to push the notion that if she didn’t drink so much, she could have easily resisted and prevented the situation. To add to that, the question of her clothing works with the idea that dressing provocatively or promiscuously is asking for sex and that she shouldn’t have dressed in a manner that may attract a man.

Let me be clear: Clothing and alcohol consumption are never responsible for sexual assault. No lack of clothing indicates consent. Consent is not a style of dress or style of dance. The University's sexual misconduct policy says “consent is a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity,” must be “voluntarily given” and “cannot be obtained through coercion or force.” Consent is not kissing or a mere back rub, which, as the survivor’s letter indicates, was precisely what Turner cited in his initial defense.

Turner’s father released a statement  on social media that further epitomizes cultural indifferences to rape. First, he describes the rape carried out by his son as “20 minutes of action.” This treats the events as perhaps a typical one-night stand or a casual hookup. He goes on to say that his son’s actions were not violent, but I would argue that rape is inherently violent. There is nothing peaceful about people thrusting themselves on defenseless individuals who haven’t expressed consent. The survivor in Turner’s case even noted scratches and abrasions across her body.

Finally, in his justification for the six-month sentence, the judge indicated he feared “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” and “there is less moral culpability attached to the defendant, who is … intoxicated.” This frustrates me the most. Once again referring to the University's Sexual Misconduct Policy, it is the responsibility of the initiator of each individual sexual activity to obtain the consent of the other individual. If Turner was too intoxicated to attempt to obtain his survivor’s consent, let alone to notice that she was incapable of consenting, then he should not have been pursuing sex.

Given that Turner admitted to wanting to hook up with someone, it was his responsibility then to ensure that his judgment wasn’t severely impaired by alcohol and that his potential partner was capable of consenting. He failed to do that. I cannot fault an individual for wanting to have sex — it’s human nature. But most individuals seeking sex have no problem taking the necessary precautions to avoid putting themselves in situations like Turner’s. Regardless of whether he intended to rape someone, he failed to perform the simple task of obtaining consent because he was intoxicated.

Ultimately, the Brock Turner case has become a reflection of a societal indifference toward rape. The language of the defendant and the judge mirrors a tendency to invalidate the suffering of rape survivors while simultaneously removing accountability from the rapist and placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the survivor. If an individual drinks too much, the consequence should be the natural punishment of a hangover: vomiting, blackouts, a visit to the hospital or a citation — not rape. If an individual chooses to dress promiscuously, the individual is not offering themselves up for sex. We need to make tremendous progress in our attitudes toward rape, and that involves recognizing that the survivor is never responsible. Instead of making excuses for the perpetrators, we need to hold them accountable and ensure that they understand their actions are inexcusable.

Ryan Roose can be reached at rooserj@umich.edu