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Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault but not “rape.” What does that mean?

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Brock Turner's conviction for a sexual assault at Stanford gained worldwide attention last week after his victim wrote a powerful letter condemning Turner's light sentence, as well as his refusal to take full responsibility for his crime by blaming alcohol and campus "party culture."

Since then, there's been some discussion about the terms "rape" and "sexual assault," and what the difference between them is. Some have argued that the media isn't making a strong enough statement about Turner when it uses the word "sexual assault" instead of "rape" or "rapist."

There have actually been plenty of news articles with headlines referring to the "Stanford rape case" or referring to Turner as a "rapist," even though he was not technically convicted of "rape" in the state of California. Yet the debate over the terminology reflects an idea that is very common but isn't necessarily true: the notion that sexual assault is a less serious crime than rape.

It's a little odd that this notion exists in the first place, given the history of the phrase "sexual assault." It first became a legal term in the 1960s, as Brian Palmer explained in 2011 at Slate — and some feminists thought that "sexual assault" should replace "rape" altogether. Rape had too much cultural baggage as a "crime of passion," the thinking went, whereas sexual assault sounded more like a serious, unprovoked crime.

These days, however, it's common for campus rape skeptics to claim that it's misleading to say that college women face a 1 in 5 risk of sexual assault, partly because they believe the term conflates rape with far less serious crimes.

State laws on rape and sexual assault are very different from one another, and can be very confusing

Under California state law, Turner was indeed convicted of sexual assault rather than rape. In California, the definition of rape includes "sexual intercourse," whereas "forcible acts of sexual penetration" is a separate crime. So that's why some headlines refer to Turner as a "sex offender" rather than a rapist, or talk about the "sexual assault" he was convicted of committing.

Specifically, Turner was found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated person, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. (The "foreign object," oddly enough, was Turner's finger; California is one of many states that include body parts that aren't sexual organs in its statutes on penetration with a foreign object.)

It's true that in many states, "rape" is a higher-level charge that carries more serious penalties than "sexual assault." But different states often have very different ways of describing the same basic crimes, said Jennifer Long, CEO of AEquitas, an organization that provides prosecutors with resources on violence against women.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, what Turner did could be considered "rape," because it involved the sexual penetration of an unconscious person. In Alaska, it would have probably fallen under the category of "sexual assault in the first degree" — but that's also the most serious category of sex crime that the state has on the books.

And whenever Turner's crime is reported to the FBI for data collection purposes, it will most likely be reported as a "rape," which the FBI defines as "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."

"You can't tell much from the label" of various sex crimes statutes, Long said. What's important are the elements of the crime that are described in those statutes.

For instance: Was there penetration of any kind, or was it other sexual contact? Did the crime involve "force" or coercion, or lack of consent? Was consent lacking because the victim was unconscious, unwilling, voluntarily or involuntarily intoxicated, developmentally disabled, or otherwise physically incapacitated? Did the assailant have significant power or authority over the victim?

Different combinations of these elements get different, and often very inconsistent, names depending on which state you're in. Some states use other terms like "sexual abuse" or "sexual torture" to describe acts that other states might define as "rape" or "sexual assault."

The specific legal category of a sex crime shouldn't dictate how seriously we take it

All of this can get extremely technical, and may even feel dehumanizing. Whatever you choose to call it, rape and sexual assault can be intensely traumatizing experiences with lasting impacts on a victim.

"All of this is not to diminish how a victim describes the experience that happened to them," Long said. "Whether or not the law says rape or some other term, victims need to call the crime what they want to call it and how they experienced it."

"In a colloquial sense," Turner's crimes describe "what most people would consider rape," said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

In her letter to Turner, the unnamed victim mostly referred to what happened to her as "sexual assault," but she also used the word "rape" several times. She said she was "assaulted and nearly raped," yet she also said it's offensive that Turner would "dilute rape" by talking about "promiscuity."

For her, and for many people, in a colloquial sense the terms are often used interchangeably. And there's nothing wrong with that.

"I think what a survivor usually cares about is that justice is done, and that the most serious crime that could be proved was charged and that there was a conviction," Berkowitz said.


Watch: 9 facts about violence against women everyone should know

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