clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I’m the professor who made Brock Turner the “textbook definition” of a rapist

How Turner’s case illustrates changing social views and laws about rape.

SAGE Publishing

As one of the authors of a textbook on criminal justice, I’m literally the person who creates the textbook definition of rape. This year, next to that definition, I inserted a photo of Brock Turner, the Stanford Univeristy student who committed a brutal, infamous sexual assault on the campus three years ago — and served a paltry three months in jail.

To my amazement, a photo of that page, taken by a female college student, went viral and received a wave of news coverage. My decision seemed to hit a nerve.

The Turner case felt like a breakthrough moment where the public was widely on the side of the victim of sexual violence for once. To see this memorialized in an academic textbook — even if Turner had eluded a just punishment — felt to many people like a step in the right direction.

At the time, I didn’t think much of my decision to include the photograph in the new edition of Introduction to Criminal Justice: Systems, Diversity, and Change. I’m always on the lookout for real-world examples to help my students understand various aspects of our legal system, and this seemed like a good one. So I was astonished not just by the publicity, but by the positive responses: people thanking me and sharing stories about rapes and assaults they had experienced.

For those unaware, Turner had been a student at Stanford in 2015 when he sexually victimized an unconscious woman outside a fraternity house — near a dumpster — during a party. (Stanford has since turned the site into a small memorial space honoring the victim.) The case drew widespread attention from the media and continued to interest my students, who often asked about it in class.

Their curiosity about the case prompted me to include Turner in a section of my textbook that discusses the changing definitions of crime over time — specifically, on the page that focuses on the definition of rape in the FBI’s data collection efforts.

Turner’s case illustrates how rape law shifts over time

Turner’s case provides a particularly clear example of these shifting definitions, and it even led to a change in California law. Turner was indicted on five charges, and was ultimately convicted of three felonies: assault with intent to rape an intoxicated person, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object. Turner was eventually sentenced to six months in prison, of which he served just three — a fact that infuriated many people (including then-Vice President Joe Biden).

The two dropped charges were rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person. They were let go because, according to California law at the time of Turner’s offenses, a rape could only be committed if a penis was used to penetrate a person without consent, and there was no DNA evidence to suggest that had occurred Turner’s case.

The jury did find Turner guilty of penetrating his victim with an object (his fingers), which California law described as a sexual assault. While local jurisdictions use a variety of terms to refer to the same action, the FBI (and other agencies gathering crime data) defines rape as “[a] type of violent crime . . . that includes penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with a body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Therefore, under the FBI’s definitions, Turner’s actions were considered rape, but not California’s.

Citing the Turner case, California lawmakers decided to expand the definition of rape in the state. In 2016, a bill jointly sponsored by Democratic state Reps. Cristina Garcia and Susan Talamantes Eggman, proposed to update California’s antiquated rape definition “in response to a loophole in California state penal code that the Brock Turner case highlighted.”

This bill became law in 2017, at which time Garcia said: “Sexual penetration without consent is rape. It is never invited, wanted or warranted. Rape is rape, period.” She also stated, "When we fail to call rape ‘rape,’ we rob survivors and their families of the justice they deserve.” That’s why Turner’s case is so important; it shows the limitations of rape law and how it continues to shift as our society evolves.

Historically, rape has been treated as a crime against a man’s property: his women. It was not considered a crime against a person. Over time, the definition of rape has expanded to include marital rape — nonconsensual penetration between married individuals. The marital rape exceptions began being removed from law in the 1970s. Prosecutions of marital rape were legally impossible previously.

The definition of rape has also expanded to acknowledge that men and boys can be and are raped. It wasn’t until 2013 that the FBI rape definition was updated to include men and boys in addition to women and girls as individuals who can be raped. In addition, in 2013 the FBI updated its definition of rape to remove the word “forcibly” to reflect the contemporary understanding of rape — that it does not necessarily involve physical force. Rather, rape can be perpetrated against a person who is unconscious, coerced, or otherwise incapacitated. Without consent, any penetration is rape.

Discussing the changing legal definitions of rape encourages students to examine more broadly why society remains resistant to viewing rape and sexual assault as violence.

My students are keenly aware of Brock Turner

The volume and tenor of the media attention surrounding Turner’s case also provided an important opportunity for discussion. Although Turner did not appear in the first edition of the text, students asked about him routinely in and out of class. They asked why he initially was referred to in some places as the “Stanford swimmer” — when others accused of similar types of violence were described based on their alleged criminal actions, not unrelated sports achievements.

It appeared to the students, and to many in the public, that Turner was being treated with unearned deference.

In my class, students learn that the majority of people who commit sexual violence never interact with the criminal justice system, and that those who do frequently serve no time at all. The textbook prompts students to interrogate deeply these facts about sexual violence and to offer ideas as to how to make the justice system more just for all.

One reporter I spoke with about the textbook asked an important question: “How will I know that society does finally view rape and sexual assault as violence?”

My answer: One way you’ll know is when survivors are no longer afraid to come forward to share their story with friends, family, and authorities because they think they will have to first prove they didn’t want to be raped or sexually assaulted. Survivors want to, and should, be believed, just like those who report burglaries, robberies, aggravated assaults, motor vehicle thefts, murder, and other crimes are generally believed. Cue the “but women lie about rape” comments. In fact, rape, like other types of violence, is rarely falsely reported.

Second, when rapists and sex offenders are punished formally and given sentences similar to those committing other types of violence. Historically, conviction rates for rape are among the lowest for any crime — and only about one-third of rapes and sexual assaults are even reported to the police, according to the Department of Justice. (The fact that Turner served any time makes this case different from most sexual violence cases brought in the nation.)

Third, when people who write or talk about rape and sexual assault receive support from both women and men in similar numbers. The comments I received from members of the public about the viral textbook page were predominantly from women. While I appreciate their support, I wonder why more men aren’t engaging, since rape and sexual assault are issues that affect all of us. If you think sexual violence does not affect you because you are male, or because you don’t have daughters or sisters, you are wrong. Rape and sexual assault is a societal problem, and my hope is that everyone in society works hard to eradicate it.

We all — men and women — must shine a bright light on all sexual violence. We will know progress has come when rather than shame and judgment, survivors of rape and sexual assault are given empathy and support — just like all other victims of violence.

The survivor in the Brock Turner case received a lot of empathy and support, and she deserved to. It’s time all survivors receive the same.

Callie Marie Rennison, PhD, is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research focuses on the nature, extent, and consequences of violent victimization and has been published in a variety of journals, books, and other outlets. In 2016, she was awarded the Bonnie S. Fisher Victimology Career Award from the Division of Victimology in the American Society of Criminology.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at