The Washington Post called him “a baby-faced Stanford freshman,” described him as such a good swimmer “that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team before he could vote,” and lamented how “his extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy.” Public officials noted the man’s youth, his lack of a criminal history. They said the amount he’d been drinking reduced his culpability.
This is, of course, a description of Brock Turner, convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at Stanford University. His sentence — just six months in county jail — launched a national uproar. The victim’s statement to her attacker, published by Buzzfeed, gave the uproar power.
Here’s the thing: People who sexually assault other people may be charming. They may be successful at work or school. They may be athletic or funny. The fact is that people who seem nice or respected or promising may also be capable of hurting someone. Often, that is how they get away with it.
It would be easier, perhaps, to think of rapists as sociopaths, psychopaths or sexual deviants — any term that separates them from everyone else. But most men who harm women don’t fall into those “other” categories. They are more like the men you know — often quite literally. Most of the time, people are raped by someone familiar to them.
“Most violence against women is committed by normative people — around campus, at work or on the base,” wrote Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology in Ohio. “This raises the possibility that the violence they perpetrate appears, in context, normative to them.”
Shpancer continued, “I would argue that in violating women most attackers are not acting alone, spontaneously, or out of some twisted personal fantasy; rather they are manifesting and adhering to the consciousness of the culture in which they are immersed.”
Offenders don’t violate others because they lose control, have an anger problem or drink too much. They make specific choices, and they learn how to mistreat people. They don’t just “snap.” They were shaped within a culture that accepts violence.
Even after child abuse case after child abuse case in the Catholic Church ( not to mention other religions: Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witnesses and an international Christian cult called the Children of God), people are still in disbelief when a beloved person with an important role rapes a woman, man or child. The Bangor community experienced this with Bob Carlson, a local religious and civic leader, who killed himself in 2011 after learning he was under investigation for sexually abusing a boy.
“Don’t assume that a person could or could not commit an offense based on their reputation,” R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said later. He’s right.
In a statement Turner read to the judge, he described how the case had ruined him: “I can never go back to being the person I was before that day. I am no longer a swimmer, a student, a resident of California, or the product of the work that I put in to accomplish the goals that I set out in the first 19 years of my life.”
As if someone of lesser social status would be more deserving of punishment. As if raping a woman made him the victim.
“The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class,” the actual victim had to explain.
His swim times, status as a college student or “baby face” should have little bearing on the outcome of a sexual assault case. In fact, those details should show the public he’s not that unusual, at all, for a rapist.
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.