Brock Turner's victim has dreams and a future, too: Sympathy for convicted sex offender is grossly misplaced

Like many young, affluent, white men in rape cases, the Stanford swimmer's "potential" inspires twisted defenses

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 7, 2016 3:12PM (EDT)

Brock Turner Mugshot (Stanford University Department of Public Safety)
Brock Turner Mugshot (Stanford University Department of Public Safety)

You can't say that the Stanford sexual assault case hasn't garnered an outpouring of public empathy. It's just been fascinating to see how much of it has been directed on the now convicted sex offender at the heart of it.

You may, if you have been following the story, know that Brock Turner is a felon and future registered sex offender. You may know that earlier this year, a jury found him guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, sexual penetration of an intoxicated person and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. And, because we still live in a world in which "white dude" is considered the default human interest angle in a story, you probably also a lot of other things about him. Things that have, ever since the case first came to light in 2015, been told and retold as sympathetically as possible.

Take, for example, how the Washington Post's Michael E. Miller — a man whose masculine bio boasts that he's "smoked stogies, interviewed strippers, and narrowly survived a cavity search in a Panamanian jungle prison, all in the name of journalism" — covered the Turner verdict. Describing the convicted sex offender as a "baby-faced Stanford freshman" and "a member of Stanford’s varsity swim team, one of the best in the country," he went on to sadly note that "his extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy" after Turner's "life and career were upended during a night of drinking." The story ends with an anecdote about how Turner responded, three years ago, when he was named his high school's Athlete of the Week. He'd offered a quote from Muhammed Ali and a wish to be "in residency to be a surgeon" in ten years. But, Miller observed, "If his conviction stands and his sentence is stiff, however, he will be in prison instead." I can't make this crap up.

Or look how the San Jose Mercury News' Scott Herhold argued earlier this month that Turner "deserves county jail, not state prison" because " He is not, as the prosecution has it, 'a continued threat to the community'" and hey, "For the rest of his life, Turner will have to register as a convicted sex offender. That effectively closes many career avenues. It's a permanent blight." Besides, "It's hard to review this case without concluding that it has roots in a culture of campus drinking, the unindicted co-conspirator here."

But it all doesn't matter anyway, because this week the judge in the case, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, wrist-slapped Turner with six months in county jail because "A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him." I'm sure Perky's totally unbiased here, doling out justice with an eye to exactly what's appropriate for what Turner did to the victim of his felonious sex assault. Oh, and by the way, Persky is a Stanford alum who was captain of the school's lacrosse team. Gosh, a Stanford man and athlete. You don't say. No doubt he considered how tragic it is that, as Turner's father wrote to him, this young man now can barely enjoy a rib-eye steak. How sad it is that Turner's father notes "His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve," because of what he demurely calls "20 minutes of action."

In a widely-shared message on social media this week, Louisa Curry observed that "I see a pattern emerging in rape culture that suggests women have a past, while men have a potential." I don't know how to tell this to you guys, but when you sexually assault someone, you're supposed to be severely punished. It's supposed to have consequences. And alcohol is not a "co-conspirator" in sexual assaults. You know what causes rape? Rapists! You know whose promising future really gets thrown for a loop after a sexual assault? The victim's! As Turner's victim wrote in a powerful letter to her assailant that has been now shared millions of times via Buzzfeed, "You cannot give me back the life I had before that night." And it needs to be said again and again and again that hers is the story that matters, and hers is the life upended.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Brock Turner Campus Rape Judge Aaron Persky Rape Sexual Assault Stanford