Brock Turner Case: Campus Rape Is Not Just an American Problem

Brock Turner
Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious and intoxicated woman in January 2015. He is here shown in this Santa Clara County Sheriff's booking photo, released June 7. Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office/Handout/Reuters

Although the news surrounding convicted sexual offender Brock Turner has gone global in recent days, readers in other parts of the world might be forgiven for feeling there's something very American about this story. The frat party setting, the bizarre preoccupation with the perpetrator's athletic abilities, the wholesome-looking photograph of him widely used in preference over the belatedly released mugshot. These details feel unfamiliar to those of us outside the U.S., and contrast with what we know of the less favourable treatment so often afforded black victims of violence (let alone perpetrators) by the American media and justice system.

But do we really think that the so-called "rape culture" within which sexual violence takes place, or the white male privilege that contributes to the lenient treatment of its perpetrators, are unique to the U.S.?

It's difficult to know the true extent of sexual violence on university campuses in the U.K., largely because, as with all sexual violence, it is under-reported. In 2013, the Government estimated that just 10 percent of those who are raped or sexually assaulted currently report to the police; through our 40 years' experience of providing specialist, independent support services to these survivors, we at Rape Crisis know that many of the reasons for this have remained unchanged over decades. Survivors talk to us about their feelings of shame and guilt for what happened to them, of blaming themselves for not behaving differently, not making different choices, not trying harder to scream or fight back. They talk about their fear of not being believed, of being judged or blamed by others, of being re-traumatized by the criminal justice system, of causing their families and friends unnecessary suffering.

We cannot pretend that a wider culture of victim-blaming, of minimising both the experiences of sexual violence survivors and the culpability of perpetrators, does not contribute to this range of feelings that survivors so often have to contend with on top of the trauma of having been raped, sexually assaulted or sexually abused. Nor can we shy away from the fact that this culture is rooted in sexism. This is not for one second to suggest that men and boys aren't raped and sexually abused or that the impacts of these experiences on men's and boys' lives are less severe or wide-ranging or that women never perpetrate sexual violence. But gender is undeniably significant to sexual violence and to the myths and stereotypes that support and enable its perpetrators. Our media, advertising, popular culture all bombard us with messages, of varying degrees of subtlety, about, for example, women's and men's different sexualities.

In a culture where women are routinely objectified, myths like the archaic but enduring one about women saying "no" when they mean "yes" endure, as does the idea that you can tell what she wants by the way she dresses, for example. In this culture, the idea of explicitly asking a woman whether she wants to have sex, checking in with her to make sure she is comfortable with what's happening, seems novel or gallant.

At the same time, because our culture is saturated with myths about men's desires and sexuality being literally uncontrollable, even if they are thought to have "overstepped the mark" they are often afforded sympathy because they were aroused and their very manliness rendered them less responsible for their own actions. Even when it is accepted that a man's predatory or abusive behaviour is criminal, our culture still finds ways to blame the one against whom that behaviour is perpetrated; she should know better than to go jogging on her own after dark, or pick an un-licensed taxi up off the street, or trust her husband or partner or male friend or colleague not to rape her in her own home or workplace, or get drunk.

This culture undoubtedly contributes to Brock Turner's father's refusal to accept how wrong and damaging his son's actions were. It is palpable in the judge's decision to hand down such a lenient sentence. And if you want to know what the outcome of such a culture is, I recommend you read the survivor's incredibly moving 7,000-word statement. It is of course harrowing but it is more than worth your time. It cuts through the myths and stereotypes and tells us all we need to know:

  • Consent is a freely given, enthusiastic "yes" from someone with the capacity to give it, nothing less.
  • No-one ever invites sexual violence against themselves or should be blamed for it; 100 percent of the responsibility lies with the perpetrator.
  • Sexual violence can and does have profound, long-lasting impacts on the lives of survivors, their friends and families.
  • If this has happened to you, it was not your fault, you are not alone.

Katie Russell is Media and Communications Co-ordinator for Rape Crisis England And Wales.