The Stanford rape case: A different conversation

 By Dr. Jill Levenson and Dr. Alissa Ackerman

Brock Turner’s release from jail after only 3 months has re-ignited the shock and outrage that emerged after the Stanford University student-athlete was sentenced to six months for sexual assault of a young woman. The victim's eloquent 12-page impact statement was read and posted in its entirety online, providing a rare and illuminating window into the experience of sexual assault. Journalistic coverage and social media exploded into debates about sentencing, rape culture, prosecutorial barriers, and privilege. While all of these discussions are important, very few people are talking about the flaws in our process that prevent true healing for survivors and preclude opportunities for perpetrators to play a role in promoting prevention, empathy, and accountability. 

We’d like to change the dialogue. We argue that the conversation should shift to promoting restorative and transformative justice. 

Our society’s almost exclusive emphasis on punishment hinders our ability to prevent sexual violence and promote victim healing in several important ways.

1. Our current criminal justice system discourages offenders from taking responsibility for their actions. Anything you say can and will be used against you, so attorneys advise their clients to remain silent, to obfuscate, to shift blame, and to minimize. Brock Turner was advised to take responsibility for his drinking, and he promised to help future college students understand that irresponsible drinking could alter one’s life forever. The public and the victim were understandably outraged by this incredibly distorted characterization of the rape. Interestingly, however, in multiple CNN stories describing the pre-sentence report obtained from the probation investigators, it was reported that Brock had actually expressed what appeared to be genuine shame and remorse to them, but that he was dissuaded by his lawyer from accepting accountability on the public record or to the victim. 

What if we lived in a culture where Brock was encouraged to authentically take responsibility, and to express his remorse directly to the victim for causing her suffering? What if he was able to articulate his comprehension of the many ways in which his actions initiated a cascade of emotional consequences for her? What if he were required to pay for her medical costs and psychological counseling? What if, instead of offering to teach college students about the dangers of drinking too much, he was sentenced to creating and providing (at his own expense) educational programs for college students about consent, respect, healthy sexual boundaries, and the damaging impact of any unwanted sexual contact? To us, these sound more like sanctions that could change the world, and the survivor, and Brock, for the better. 

2. It is not hard to understand why Brock’s father wanted to protect his son from the consequences of his own inexcusable actions. The father’s insensitive and invalidating statements, however, added insult to injury. Not just for the victim in this case and for survivors everywhere, but for Brock as well. As parents, we may want to rescue our adult children from themselves, but when we do, we prevent them from owning their behavior and we enable them to minimize and rationalize. Perhaps the father’s statement provides a window of insight about the ways that he (and many other parents) inadvertently nurture narcissistic entitlement and the inevitable inability to empathize with others’ experiences and perspectives. 

What if we lived in a culture where parents could say to young adults the same things we teach toddlers: “Apologize and make it up to someone when you hurt them.” When, during the course of childhood, does that lesson shift to self-preservation at the expense of others? How could the criminal justice system better help a parent to navigate their incredibly conflicted desire to model accountability without fear that to do so would exacerbate the suffering of one’s own young adult child?

3. Finally, a few thoughts about prevention. Our country united in collective support for this victim after her enlightening and empowering statement. For those expecting that her words will prevent future sex crimes, however, we believe that you are sadly mistaken. It is unlikely that in the moment, a rapist inclined to rape will think of her poignant story. It is unlikely even that friends and family members of survivors, who themselves have been socialized into a rape culture with so many distorted messages about sex, will remember her moving narrative and be inspired to respond in ways that don’t endorse rape myths.

Prevention requires a complex web of intersecting changes. Certainly we need to continue to shift our societal response in a way that fully and exclusively attributes responsibility for sexual assault to perpetrators. We need to be willing to invest public funds into services for at-risk families and communities, since we know that early adversity increases risk for criminal behavior, including sexual assault. We devote enormous resources to incarceration and sex offender registries for perpetrators, and to foster care placements for maltreated children. Unfortunately, these interventions occur after abuse; they are not prevention. Meanwhile, sexual assault treatment centers and rehabilitative programs for offenders are among the first items to be cut from legislative budgets each year, despite research indicating that they reduce victim trauma, are cost-effective, and improve public safety. Our investments in prisons and punitive policies have come with a sacrifice of resources for evidence-based services that promote victim healing and successful outcomes for perpetrators. Every dollar spend on increasingly punitive sanctions is a dollar not available for victims and the agencies that serve them. Investing in responsive and preventive interventions for victims and offenders can help prevent future sexual victimization.

 A society that measures justice only in the length of a prison term is limited in its capacity to effect change and reduce harm. Let’s move the conversation toward understanding the needs of survivors in their healing journey, and fashion our responses accordingly. 

 Dr. Jill Levenson is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. Dr. Alissa Ackerman is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Criminal Justice at University of Washington Tacoma.