In March of this year, twenty-year-old California resident Brock Turner was convicted of three felonies: intent to commit rape of an intoxicated/unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person. But earlier this week, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky determined that Turner will only have to serve six months in jail, because, he said, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.”
Many disagree with this lenient sentence, myself included; more than one million people have signed a petition demanding that Persky be removed from him position. Santa Clara County prosecutors requested six years in federal prison for Turner which in itself would be a lenient sentence; those convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault typically face upwards of fourteen years in prison. “Assault with intent to commit rape usually carries a prison sentence,” said Dmitry Gorin, a former L.A. County sex crimes prosecutor. “I cannot think of a similar local case where a defendant convicted by a jury of such a violent crime avoided prison.” Many legal experts agree that Turner will likely only spend three months in jail due to his background and lack of criminal record prior to the three felony convictions. Many also agree that the judge, a former Stanford athlete, was indulgent with Turner because he was on the Stanford swim team and had his sights set on making it to the Olympics. To me, this sentence is a nonsensical distortion of justice; indeed, the punishment does not fit the crime.
On the night of January 17th, 2015, Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious and intoxicated woman behind a dumpster outside a Stanford fraternity party. Two graduate students at Stanford, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, were biking across campus when they saw Turner gyrating on top of an immobile woman with her bra pulled out of her dress, one breast exposed, her long necklace wound tightly around her neck, her dress pulled up above her waist and her torn underwear lying next to her exposed stomach. Arndt and Jonsson called out to Turner and he attempted to run away, but the two men caught him and restrained him until police arrived. Throughout all this, the woman continued to lay unconscious and half-naked behind the dumpster and did not become coherent until after she was transported to the hospital by ambulance. Turner and the woman had never met prior to the evening of January 17th, 2015.
Since that night, Turner has repeatedly referred to the sexual assault as “college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.” His father, Dan A. Turner, in an open letter to the court, lamented the fact that Turner no longer has an appetite for his once-beloved pretzels, chips, and “big ribeye steak” and called the six-month jail sentence “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” This was not a statement he made in passing to reporters; this was not an utterance taken out of context. These words were printed in a written statement by Turner’s father which one can only assume he thought long and hard about in sitting down and composing this letter as he knew it would be made public by the court. Turner’s father, who has a daughter as well as an older son, called penetrating an unconscious young woman with a foreign object behind a dumpster “20 minutes of action.” That despicable thought process speaks for itself.
In hearing the news of Turner’s extremely lenient sentence earlier this week, I was deeply saddened. But this morning, I read the open letter written by the unnamed woman he sexually assaulted which she read aloud to Turner in court after the sentencing. Her letter is moving and articulate, poignant and contemplative. Where Turner’s fathers words were hasty, ignorant, and loathsome, the words of the victim were meticulous and deliberate and illustrate the power of the written word. As Jonsson, one of the two graduate students who found her, said, “[This letter] comes as close as you can possibly get to putting words on an experience that words cannot describe.”
After reading her letter, I felt empowered. Her recollection of days and months following the assault is horrific, and there were several points where I had to take a break from reading the harrowing 13-page statement, especially in her descriptions of the trial. Not only was this young woman sexually assaulted behind a dumpster, she was also verbally assaulted in court for months during the trial. “To listen to [Turner’s] attorney attempt to paint a picture of me, the face of girls gone wild, as if somehow that would make it so that I had this coming for me,” she wrote in her statement. “To listen to him say I sounded drunk on the phone because I’m silly and that’s my goofy way of speaking. To point out that in the voicemail, I said I would reward my boyfriend and we all know what I was thinking. I assure you my rewards program is non transferable, especially to any nameless man that approaches me.”
As a woman who has been sexually assaulted and dealt with the months and years of distressing aftermath myself, it is this reasoning and disinformation that angers me more than anything. If a woman is sexy, then she wants sex, not just with her partner, but with anyone who will “give it to her.” If a woman likes to go out and drink on the weekends, then she is a “woo girl” who intentionally gets drunk enough to black out and thus have an excuse to be promiscuous. If a woman wears short shorts, then she is a slut. If a woman is lighthearted and jokey, then she is stupid. If a woman is a feminist, then she despises sexuality and hates all men. If a woman posts a photo of herself showing skin on social media, then she is an attention-freak who wants to be fucked. These are lies.
I am a feminist woman who enjoys sex with my long-term partner. I teach college English. I am a graduate student at a prominent writing program. I love crop tops, denim shorts, and six-inch platforms. I like Irish whisky. I make silly videos of myself dancing to Lucinda Williams’ “Changed the Locks” like Maura Tierney’s character in The Affair. I also occasionally post sultry photos on Instagram and have been called a slut and a whore for doing so. In one recent video I posted to my Instagram where I was dancing jokingly in a long black dress to Tech N9ne’s “Caribou Lou,” the comments devolved into a series of threatening taunts. They started off harmlessly enough, beginning with things like, “She must be really bored” and “I wonder if her boyfriend has seen this” but quickly devolving into things like “her boyfriend clearly needs to fuck her” to “Any dude needs to fuck her because she’s #begging.” (As a side note, mostly I film these dance videos because they crack my mother up; she lives in another state, and we send each other silly videos of us dancing and singing as a way to stay connected. This video was one of those.) Most of these comments were from men, but some were from also from women. Perhaps Instagram needs a new Twitter button as well. (Re: completely accurate skit on Inside Amy Schumer about how many women are relentlessly taunted online.)
Both men and women alike are quick to call pretty women promiscuous, to be in a state of disbelief that an attractive woman can also be smart and achieve great things. I want to make clear that a woman who is sexy does not mean that she is or wants to be sexualized. If a woman is wearing a short dress, that does not mean she “wants it.” If a woman is wearing a long dress, that does not mean she “wants it” either. A woman’s looks have no bearing on her internal thoughts. Women are not objects.
The letter written by the woman Brock Turner sexually assaulted, who has chosen to remain anonymous both to protect her identity as well as to prove that she doesn’t “need labels [or] categories to prove I am worthy of respect, to prove that I should be listened to; I am coming out to you as simply a woman wanting to be heard. . . . I am every woman,” is a reminder that what she experienced is not an isolated incident. Though it is undeniable that many women have been assaulted and raped by masked assailants in the night, more often, women are assaulted by men they know, men they previously may have considered friends, men who are acquaintances leaving strange comments on their social media pages, men they might not have known but who appeared harmless as they chugged PBR across the room at their first frat party. And women of all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses have either been directly affected by sexual assault or known another woman who has. This powerful letter reminds us that this is not a “female issue,” that this is an issue that both men and women alike must acknowledge and work together to eliminate. If a man assaults an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and is convicted of three felonies, his sentence should not be lenient. If a woman assaults an unconscious man behind a dumpster and his convicted of three felonies, her sentence should not be lenient either. As feminists, we demand equal rights.
As the victim’s letter states, “By definition rape is the absence of promiscuity, rape is the absence of consent.” This letter is an inspiration to women all across the country and world. It encourages us, both women and men alike, to stand together and unite, to say that brutal sexual assaults will not be forgiven, that they will not be swept under the rug and brushed off as “20 minutes of action” that women want and deserve.
In the conclusion of her moving letter, this young woman quotes author Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” And we women will continue to stand and shine; we will not be broken by those who inflict harm on us. We will not let the Brock Turners of the world prevail. We will not let our sex define us; we will possess our sexuality proudly and will not bend and allow others to sexualize us. We will stand together. We will wear our intelligence and diligence proudly. We are not objects. We will not be exploited.