Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

What we can learn from the Stanford sexual assault case

In January, a man was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster near a frat house. Stopped and detained by two Swedish international graduate students until the police arrived, Brock Turner has maintained that this incident was about overindulging in alcohol and the resulting “promiscuity.” Turner was convicted of sexual assault and the judge, acknowledging that the victim had been devastated by the incident, nevertheless stated that going to prison would have a “severe” impact on Turner, and thus sentenced him to six months in jail. 

This case has become a perfect example of how a seemingly “nice guy” can commit astoundingly cruel acts against another person, all the while claiming that an unconscious person “consented” to have sexual relations. And even now, both Turner and his father have made statements that make it clear that they do not understand the violent, callous nature of his actions and their effects on the victim. 

Because of the ways that the judge, Turner, and his father have all focused on the effects of that night on Turner, it is imperative for all victims of crime that the words of the victim are shared publicly. In this breathtaking statement, the woman who was the victim of this crime shares her own perspective. It is a painful thing to read, but it is essential. 

One of the most powerful images from the victim’s statement is her feeling of loss of ownership of her own body. She says, “I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”

In describing her feelings of disempowerment after reading about the assault in the news, the victim says, “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 extra-curriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened.” This focus on Turner’s athletic prowess is disturbing. It’s as if the perpetrator is a person, with so much potential, and she, the victim, is nothing. 

When a story like this reaches national levels of conversation, it is vitally important that we collectively consider what it says about our culture, and what we can learn from it. I suggest that parents, caregivers, and those who work with adolescents consider using this story as a conversation starter. Share the story, the statements from Turner and his father, and the victim, and talk with teens about them. You might discuss:

  • How the victim feels victimized again by the court system and Turner’s statement. Why might that be? What is it about the process that has left her feeling that way? What might be handled differently so that she doesn’t feel that way?
  • What have you learned about consent in light of the story and the statements? When in a situation where you might be looking for consent from a partner, how do you assure that consent has been given? What if you’re unsure of consent? Obviously, the idea here is to help teens think about when consent can and cannot be given. We need to drive home with all of our teens the fact that people who are intoxicated or under the influence cannot give full consent, and should be considered off limits. If someone is unconscious, it is a given that they cannot consent.
  • What else have you learned from this case? How might we, as a society, learn and change from looking at this case, how it happened, and how it was handled?

This is a devastating situation, and with it coming into public conversation, it’s important to help our teenagers and young adults process it and learn from it. The victim of this crime has shared her experience so bravely and eloquently. I hope and pray healing and support for her and all victims of violent crimes, and also hope that we, as a society, can become better about teaching all of our kids about consent and empathy so that there might be fewer of these crimes to begin with.

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