clock menu more-arrow no yes

This letter from a Stanford sexual assault victim destroys 5 bad assumptions about rape

Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock.com

Former Stanford University student Brock Turner, 20, was convicted in March of three counts of felony sexual assault. He faced a maximum of 14 years in prison — but he was sentenced to just six months in jail, plus probation. Turner was a star swimmer, on track to compete for a spot at the 2016 Olympics, and the judge in the case said that a longer sentence would have had "a severe impact on him."

Turner's victim, a 23-year-old woman who hasn't been publicly identified, reminded the court that "severe impact" doesn't even begin to describe how the assault affected her life. The woman read a long, powerful letter to Turner at his sentencing hearing on Thursday, which went viral Friday after being published by BuzzFeed News.

There's a reason the letter went viral. It's one of the best-written, most gut-wrenching takedowns I've ever read of the false stereotypes and bad assumptions that so many people have about rape victims.

The letter is specific to this woman's story, yet it also speaks to the stories of so many other victims. It systematically destroys almost every doubt or "but what about" that is most commonly raised when someone comes forward about being raped or sexually assaulted.

Bad assumption 1: If a woman drank too much to remember what happened, maybe she actually wanted it at the time

First of all, there was plenty of evidence to refute the idea that the woman consented in this particular case. That's why Turner was convicted in the first place.

Two Stanford graduate students on bicycles tackled Turner when they found him behind a dumpster thrusting against the woman, who was half-naked and obviously unconscious. She later woke up in the hospital with abrasions on her skin and in her vagina, and pine needles in her hair from when Turner had her on the ground.

Yet Turner used a classic victim-blaming technique to claim that the woman had shown physical affection to him earlier in the night, which must have meant that she liked what he did later:

The night after it happened, he said he thought I liked it because I rubbed his back. A back rub.

Never mentioned me voicing consent, never mentioned us even speaking, a back rub. One more time, in public news, I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.

This was a weak story that Turner changed later, the woman said, by claiming that she had actually consented to sexual activity. She explained why this idea was ridiculous — and why it's important to be skeptical when any accused rapist claims something similar:

He said he had asked if I wanted to dance. Apparently I said yes. He’d asked if I wanted to go to his dorm, I said yes. Then he asked if he could finger me and I said yes. Most guys don’t ask, can I finger you? Usually there’s a natural progression of things, unfolding consensually, not a Q and A. But apparently I granted full permission. He’s in the clear. Even in his story, I only said a total of three words, yes yes yes, before he had me half naked on the ground. Future reference, if you are confused about whether a girl can consent, see if she can speak an entire sentence.

On top of all this, he claimed that I orgasmed after one minute of digital penetration. The nurse said there had been abrasions, lacerations, and dirt in my genitalia. Was that before or after I came?

Bad assumption 2: If a woman drank too much, she is partly to blame for being assaulted

The woman makes a point that advocates often raise: It's shortsighted to focus on how individual women can protect themselves from sexual assault. If one woman manages to get away, a rapist will probably just move on to someone else:

He admitted to wanting to hook up with someone. I was the wounded antelope of the herd, completely alone and vulnerable, physically unable to fend for myself, and he chose me. Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gone, then this never would’ve happened. But then I realized, it would have happened, just to somebody else.

And it's both shortsighted and callous to suggest that women should expect to be raped as a possible consequence of drinking too much:

Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.

Bad assumption 3: If a man was drinking heavily, he can't be held responsible for sexual assault

"Alcohol is not an excuse," the woman wrote in response to Turner's statement about how alcohol affected both of their judgments. "Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked."

The woman said that what bothers her the most is Turner's refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He has said that he intends to start a program for high school and college students where he will "speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that":

Campus drinking culture. That’s what we’re speaking out against? You think that’s what I’ve spent the past year fighting for? Not awareness about campus sexual assault, or rape, or learning to recognize consent. Campus drinking culture. Down with Jack Daniels. Down with Skyy Vodka. If you want talk to people about drinking go to an AA meeting. You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less.

Drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that. Goes along with that, like a side effect, like fries on the side of your order. Where does promiscuity even come into play? I don’t see headlines that read, Brock Turner, Guilty of drinking too much and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.

Bad assumption 4: A woman's sexual or personal history is relevant to the question of whether she was assaulted

The woman recalls a brutal court proceeding, with questions from Turner's defense attorney that were "invasive, aggressive, and designed to steer me off course." She said Turner's attorney asked about her sexual and drinking habits in an attempt to paint her as "the face of girls gone wild, as if somehow that would make it so that I had this coming for me." Even if she had been featured on Girls Gone Wild, it wouldn't have changed any of the facts of the case or what Turner did to her.

The woman included an exhaustive list of the kinds of questions she was peppered with during the trial:

How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan? Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.

Bad assumption 5: The guy was just a confused college kid with great life prospects, so a judge should go easy on him

It's all too common for the media and the public to sympathize with an accused rapist because he has an athletic scholarship and a promising future, or because it isn't worth "ruining his life" over one mistake that he made because he didn't know any better:

As this is a first offense I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense. The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault needs to be severe enough that people feel enough fear to exercise good judgment even if they are drunk, severe enough to be preventative.

The probation officer weighed the fact that he has surrendered a hard earned swimming scholarship. How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me, and should not lessen the severity of his punishment. If a first-time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be? The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class.

However, the same sympathy is almost never extended to victims. They are seen only as nameless and faceless actors who are causing trouble for some poor young man:

And then, 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. Throw in my mile time if that’s what we’re doing. I’m good at cooking, put that in there, I think the end is where you list your extracurriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened.

Above all, the woman's letter was a visceral reminder that rape victims are full human beings whose lives can be irrevocably changed by an assault:

In newspapers my name was, "unconscious intoxicated woman," 10 syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All­-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.


Facts about violence against women everyone should know

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.