Why Did Judge Aaron Persky's Stanford Rape Decision Go Viral?

At the nexus of rape and race, Brock Turner's six month sentence is brutally short

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Why Did Judge Aaron Persky's Stanford Rape Decision Go Viral?
Brock Turner’s six-month sentence sparked national outrage, and as a perpetrator of sexual assault, his demographic profile is far too common.

Earlier this month, after Stanford University freshman Brock Turner was found guilty of three felony counts of sexual assault, California judge Aaron Persky sentenced the swimmer to six months in jail, though he may be out in as few as three. "Absolutely shocked and appalled," was the response of one anonymous juror who delivered a scathing letter to the judge, summing up the general attitude reflected in social media. More than fifteen million people have read and shared a devastating 12-page courtroom statement read by his victim, 23-year old Emily Doe. Yesterday, the letter, in which she relentlessly detailed the immediate and long-term impacts of her assault, was read on the floor of the House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of more than 40 more members of Congress. 

The circumstances of the assault, though, are hardly rare. Just last year, the trials of four ex-Vanderbilt University football players, charged with multiple counts of sexual battery and aggravated rape of an unconscious woman, barely registered in the media. In the Vanderbilt case, elements of which were caught on dormitory cameras and cell phones, witnesses saw men carrying an inert woman into a room where she was sodomized and urinated on before being thrown out into a hallway. Like the Stanford victim, the woman had no memory of the events of the night.

So what happened in California to propel such widespread rage and action? A public whose consciousness has been raised by several years of intense social activism responded to a perfect storm of sexual entitlement and racial privilege – a graphic nexus between the Title IX and Black Lives Matter movements. Given that these social protests overlap in their core critiques of systemic white male privilege, the fact that it's a rape case is not a coincidence but a critical inevitability. Rape, more than any other social phenomenon, clearly illustrates how intertwined racism and misogyny are in the United States.

As a perpetrator of sexual assault, Turner is unexceptional. Demographically, his is the profile of the teenager most likely to engage in sexual coercion or assault and to use alcohol to facilitate abuse. According to a study released in late 2013, one in 10 people between the ages of 14-21 report having already committed an act of sexual violence; 15% said they used alcohol as a facilitator. Eighty percent of victims were girls. Across race, ethnicity and class, the teenagers with the highest propensity to admit that they'd sexually coerced or assaulted a peer were white boys from higher-income families. In other words, rape is a perk of status.

By going to court instead of just admitting guilt, Turner rolled the dice and lost, but the odds were in distinctly in his favor. College athletes are far less likely than their non-athletic peers to face charges for criminal behavior, but far more likely to engage in sexual and illegal violence. More than 50% of male collegiate athletes report coercing partners. Male athletes are responsible for up to 19% of reported sexual assaults and 37% of intimate partner violence on college campuses, despite being just more than 3% of college populations.

Victims of sexual assault have an acute sense of these institutional biases.  The Center for Public Policy and the Department of Justice estimate that 95% of college sexual assaults are not reported because victims, regardless of sex, gender or sexuality, do not have confidence that they will be believed institutionally supported.  Few schools expel rapists and they routinely don't disclose the school records of people found guilty of sexual assaults if they transfer, in order to give them a second chance to start anew. Ridiculous punishments, such as book reports or "expulsion" after graduation, have, until recently, been common. Today, as the result of the work of Title IX student activists, more than 200 schools are actively under investigation for institutional failures to meet Title IX requirements.

While Persky's decision wasn't surprising, it was nonetheless an insult to the victim, essentially dismissing the life-altering effects of her assault. (In her devastating 12-page courtroom statement, she explained the impact of her assault, from swabs in her vagina and anus to a camera pointed between her legs to feelings of depression and post-traumatic stress, describing how she wanted to "take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.") As Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, who is leading a recall effort against Persky, explained this week, the judge's decision "means that he has essentially taken campus rape out of the category of things you can go to prison for."

It's hard to imagine that if Turner wasn't white he would have received such a lenient sentence. His trial came to an end only months after that of 19-year-old Vanderbilt athlete Cory Batey, who was found guilty of aggravated rape. But Batey, who is African American, faces 15 to 25 years in prison in Tennessee. This is not just a difference in state law. Disparities like this begin as early as kindergarten and never end. Black boys are suspended from school more than three times more frequently than their white male peers. Black girls are suspended six times more frequently than white girls, experience higher rates of suspension than most boys and their sexual abuse­ – which affects up to 60% of black girls before they reach the age of 18 – is a primary predictor of black girls' entry into the criminal justice system.

Persky's decision was filtered through this reality. His sentence effectively told the community that Turner wasn't a "real" criminal, but a boy who drank too much, made a mistake and shouldn't be overly punished for it. All it did was reveal Turner's privilege, in this case, racial and gendered innocence. Raped by adult men, girls are frequently described as looking older than they are, in the same way that black boys, killed by the police or vigilantes, are often described as adults, to be super-human and monstrous. That monstrousness is directly linked to the myth of the black male rapist, which not only has historically meant penalization, but has been used to justify public acts of racial violence in the name of white womanhood – as recently as last year, when mass murderer Dylan Roof told his black victims, "You rape our women, and you're taking over our country," before opening fire in a Charleston church.

Another factor in the public outrage to Brock Turner's sentence was the media's initial failure to understand the inflection point. In many new outlets, Turner was portrayed as an upstanding, clean cut, bright-eyed youth. Photographs that were initially used belied descriptions of his crime and comparisons of the photos used in coverage of Turner's case with mug shots used in stories about black perpetrators flooded social media. But this, too, reflected another meaningful and common bias in coverage of gender-based violence: Stories about white perpetrators are more than twice as likely to include excuses or extenuating circumstances, such as alcohol consumption, than those involving black perpetrators.

Defaulting to alcohol to rationalize rape in a case such as this one is ironic, given that drunkenness vividly puts on display the gender inequality of which status-based sexual violence is a symptom.  Unlike most men, if a woman drinks, she has to reasonably consider that she might be brutally penetrated, slapped and excreted on, nonconsensually impregnated, photographed, ridiculed or shamed. Persky seemed not to be too concerned with the societal meaning of this egregious double standard.

In a world where women are constantly being taught to avoid rape or risk being blamed for what happens to them, the judge was disinclined to send the important message that men who rape a person need to consider the very real risk of jail, regardless of blood alcohol content. Yesterday, Persky was removed from a new sexual assault case which involved a male nurse who sexually assaulted an unconscious, anesthetized woman.

In his commencement speech at Stanford last weekend, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns commended the anonymous victim for making her words and experiences public. "Maybe someday," he said, "we'll make the survivor's eloquent statement as important as Dr. (Martin Luther) King's letter from the Birmingham jail."  

Until then, Turner's three-month sentence is more than 97% of rapists in America ever spend in jail.

Vice President Joe Biden has written a powerful letter to the woman who was sexually assaulted by Stanford student Brock Turner. Watch here.