Brock Turner is a rapist. I wasn’t originally going to begin the article like that, but after a few drafts I realized that was the only way to do so. That fact has to be called out in the plainest way possible. Why? Because Brock Turner’s appeal this week is the latest illustration of how those accused so often “reframe” the conversation around sexual assault in a horrific attempt to add a little gray to a crime that should be unquestionably clear.
What does it mean to “reframe”? It’s a means of strategically telling the story in a different way. On its surface, it is neither something good nor bad. I often talk about the need to “reframe a conversation” and I typically see it as a positive, proactive approach to encourage people to see things differently.
But in the case of sexual assault, the incessant reframes are just wrong. They are manipulative strategies that aim to take accountability off of the accused. It’s like waving with the left hand so that people ignore the right. It is intentional and too often, unfortunately, very effective.
So, to Brock Turner specifically, (plus the Brock Turners of the past, the older versions of Brock Turner and the younger ones watching this all unfold), let me be blunt: No matter how desperately you try to shirk accountability and reframe the situation, the fact remains – you did this. You are a rapist.
To refresh your memory – Brock Turner was the freshman swimmer at Stanford who was accused and convicted of sexual assault in March, 2016*. Not surprising, he was white, wealthy and privileged as a star athlete with Olympic potential. The girl he raped was unconscious and it took the heroic act of two, male Stanford graduate students to stop it, calling out Turner (in real time), tackling him when he fled, and forcibly holding him down until police could arrive.
It should have been a cut and dry case. But while Turner was ultimately convicted of sexual assault of an unconscious person, he was sentenced to just 6 months in jail. In the end, he served only three of them.
To add insult to injury, Persky, the deplorable judge that decided the case, claimed at the time that half a year would have a “severe impact” on Turner when he gave him the 6-month sentence. (It’s worth noting here that a full-term pregnancy, the shelf life of hummus, and the latest trend of fanciful pop-up museums often last longer than that sentence). Turner’s father, when asking the judge for leniency in 2016, actually said Turner shouldn’t have too “steep [a] price to pay for 20 minutes of action in his 20 plus years of life”. “20 minutes of ‘action’”? I guess it’s clear the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The girl Turner assaulted refused to play the victim role and go away quietly. She wrote an open letter detailing what happened, and she did not mince words. It. Was. Powerful. Her letter was articulate and brave and honest in a way that should have permanently altered the discussion.
And yet, this week Brock Turner filed to appeal his conviction. He got away with a shockingly light sentence on a heinous crime and, a year later, he has the nerve to come back and appeal the conviction? Is that for real? Yes. Because we continue to allow those with power to reframe the discussion on their terms. It is elitism at its finest.
How exactly does this work? Let me give you a few examples. The typical first line of defense is to leverage traditional sexism and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases people hold about how a woman should dress and behave in public. Why did she dress like that in the first place? Doesn’t she have a promiscuous history? The way she was flirting, what did she think was going to happen? Actually no. It has nothing to do with her risqué top, how provocatively she danced, or how much she flirted with her rapist beforehand. None of those things make rape okay.
The reframe then usually goes down the path of the accused being an (otherwise) great guy. “Maybe there was a misunderstanding” or “Everyone knows he can be a dirtbag, but deep down he’s a good guy”. Or it argues semantics in such that one could do a bad thing, but not the worst thing. Yeah he fingered her, but he didn’t have sex with her. True, she didn’t exactly say yes, but she wasn’t screaming no. Um, nope. It’s pretty simple – good guys don’t rape people. Not even just one time. Not even kind-of sort-of.
In this case, Brock Turner’s primary reframe revolves around alcohol. The alcohol made him do it. He is deeply sorry . . . for drinking too much and making a poor decision. He has learned his lesson from this tragedy and is going to dedicate serious time and energy to changing people’s attitudes “toward the culture surrounded by binge drinking”.
That’s accountability? No, that’s an excuse.
Of course, drinking can impair one’s judgement, but guess what – there were a lot of people drinking at the party that night. Only one of them – Brock Turner – pulled down a girl’s underwear, lay on top of her, and then proceeded to rape an unconscious woman.
So, no, Mr. Turner, the alcohol didn’t commit the rape, you did.
But he’s so young! – is the final reframe. He was a freshman and drunk and stupid. He’s appealing because he doesn’t want the words “sexual offender” on his permanent record for the rest of his life, that’s understandable! He made a terrible mistake, but he was young and still has so much potential! You know what I have to say to that? So was she. So does SHE.
The reframing of the sexual assault discussion in this country has become way too common and way too accepted.
Actions have consequences. Or at least they’re supposed to. The Brock Turner appeal is a perfect illustration of how reframing the discussion has allowed some to think otherwise.
Like so many before him, Brock Turner (and his family and his legal team and anyone else advising or empathizing with his situation) is missing the point. Rape is not about a person’s dress, a person’s age, how good of a friend they are, or how much alcohol was consumed – by either party.
Rape is about one person sexually penetrating another, without their consent. A flirty smile in the beginning of the night – is not consent. A drunken hiccup – is not consent. And in this case, it should go without question, that an unconscious woman IS NOT CAPABLE of consent. This should not be so difficult to understand.
Brock Turner needs to own what he’s done and be held accountable. By allowing these perpetual reframes to play out, we send the message that he doesn’t have to be. This culture is not created overnight and it’s not accidental. It is a byproduct of a world in which the privileged are literally taught to act first and apologize later. As a society, we have been complicit in allowing these reframes and it has to stop. Reframing a story does not change the outcome. We need to hold the Brock Turners of the world accountable.