20-year-old Stanford athlete Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman last week and charged with three felonies, including assault with intent to rape—but Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to only six months in prison, which has since been reduced to three months, a minimal sentence for a crime of this magnitude which could have earned him a maximum of 14 years instead. In response, activists have launched a petition ordering the removal of Judge Persky—and Turner’s victim has come out to tell her own story and counter the rape myths defining it in the media.
The media’s coverage of the case followed in a pattern we’re all far too familiar with: the lionizing of rape perpetrators and the implicit demonizing of their victims. The media focused on Turner’s status as a star athlete and used his smiling year book photo rather than his mug shot in articles about the case, reporting which worked in harmony with the character reference Turner’s own father wrote for the case downplaying the assault as “20 minutes of action” and then detailing how the situation had torn his son’s life apart—including that he can’t eat steak anymore—without considering how it had changed the victim’s own life.
The positioning of the case this way—by the media and Turner’s family and legal team—exemplify victim-blaming and rape culture. The hyper-focus on Turner’s swimming career painted the illusion that this rape was a tragedy not because of the severe trauma instilled upon the victim, but because a promising swimming career was tarnished. (The Washington Post even wrote that Turner’s “extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy,” paying almost no mind to the notion that he tarnished it himself by committing a heinous crime.)
In response, Turner’s victim wrote a powerful personal statement addressing how the situation had impacted her personally and how the media’s focus on building Turner up as a “star athlete” who was suffering because of his crime shaped that impact:
I tried to push it out of my mind, but it was so heavy I didn’t talk, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t interact with anyone. After work, I would drive to a secluded place to scream. I didn’t talk, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t interact with anyone, and I became isolated from the ones I loved most. For one week after the incident, I didn’t get any calls or updates about that night or what happened to me. The only symbol that proved that it hadn’t just been a bad dream, was the sweatshirt from the hospital in my drawer.
One day, I was at work, scrolling through the news on my phone, and came across an article. In it, I read and learned for the first time about how I was found unconscious, with my hair disheveled, long necklace wrapped around my neck, bra pulled out of my dress, dress pulled off over my shoulders and pulled up above my waist, that I was butt naked all the way down to my boots, legs spread apart, and had been penetrated by a foreign object by someone I did not recognize. This was how I learned what happened to me, sitting at my desk reading the news at work. I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. That’s when the pine needles in my hair made sense, they didn’t fall from a tree. He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me. This can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this online. I kept reading. In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that according to him, I liked it. I liked it. Again, I do not have words for these feelings.
At the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming.
Her statement directly confronts the inherent sexism in the handling of a very public rape case, as well as the shortcomings of our culture that fuel it. The victim discussed the numerous ways in which Turner’s defense blamed her for the rape, through questions that ranged from her dating history to the color of her cardigan. This case displayed the common practice of victim blaming, rape culture on college campuses, and a court system that is partial to those with privilege and status. The victim’s statement serves as a powerful reminder as to how these social and institutional practices must change.
“I hope to show people that one night of drinking could ruin a life,” Turner said in a recent statement, hoping to re-cast this crime as an unfortunate drunk mistake and not a violent attack on someone’s autonomy and safety.
“You forgot about mine,” the victim responded. “Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect.”