As the founder of Stanford’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Office, I counseled approximately 100 survivors on whether to report their assault to the university and to the police. That same year I also led efforts to educate thousands of students, staff, and faculty on the difference between consent and violence. Our innovative programs got national attention, and I was asked to provide testimony to Congress for the Violence Against Women Act on campus assault prevention education.
It’s good to read the recent Stanford University statement that they still train students to be proactive in stopping assaults and that two students acted when they saw the violent actions of another student.
Brock Turner’s case is unusual in that most campus survivors are acquaintances with the assailant, there are no eyewitnesses, and most survivors don’t want to report to the police or get involved with the criminal justice system. Few reports of sexual assault ever lead to prosecution. National estimates suggest that for every 100 rapes, only five rapists go to prison. The survivor in the Turner case appears to have had little choice about whether to prosecute because police were already contacted and evidence was already being collected by the time she became conscious.
Survivors typically face a very difficult choice. If they report, they will face “re-victimization” when each person may question whether they are promiscuous or somehow deserved this and whether they are truthful; they have to relive every graphic detail. If they don’t report, the assailant may continue to assault others. As their counselor, this weighed heavily on me. I sometimes would hear about the same assailant multiple times. And, yet, I couldn’t make a strong recommendation to report; the criminal justice system seemed stacked against survivors, and it almost never seemed to be in the self-interest of the individual to go through that.
The extensive media coverage of Turner’s sentence might further inhibit future survivors from wanting to report. I’m glad the survivor in this case is getting moral support and political support from people around the world. Not only does that have meaning for her, but women everywhere may notice.
The case is getting a lot of attention both on campus at Stanford and among its alumni since both the assailant and the judge were former student athletes. As a junior I lived in Eucalipto, which is coincidentally the same small dorm of about 40 rooms that Turner lived in as a freshman when the assault took place. Award-winning Olympic athletes lived in the same dorm rooms as our neighbors, and no student treated them differently from any other student. But when the criminal justice system deals with accused athletes, it sometimes appears that treatment is very different. Seniors at Stanford are planning a protest at graduation this Sunday to raise questions about the interplay of race, privilege, and sexual assault.
People have asked me in recent days whether the effort to punish or recall Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky will have any effect. Others have asked me whether it would set an odd precedent to have a social media mob recall a judge without a full review of the judge’s decisions and jurisprudence. A recall campaign could send a message to other judges, to survivors, and to the general public that’s watching. Whether or not a recall takes place, it’s good this case is raising awareness of the need for fair and just judges on important issues like sexual assault and nondiscriminatory sentencing. Those discussions are good for democracy and good for working toward a world without violence.
Judge Persky’s bio shows he sat on a domestic violence nonprofit board. Although the reasoning the judge provided for his recent sentencing decision makes this hard to imagine, it’s possible he is truly concerned about violence against women, yet saw reasons to give Turner a light sentence. It makes me wonder the extent to which issue-based organizations vet their board members beyond their impressive credentials, contacts, and financial resources. As a management consultant, I often work with nonprofit organizations that are concerned about recruiting board members with financial connections and getting those board members to raise money needed to keep the organization operating.
I also have seen politicians and other leaders look to broaden their credentials by serving on a nonprofit board or commission that they have no experience with. If they are short on environmental credentials they might join an environmental nonprofit board, or if they are short on education credentials they might join an education foundation board or a parks and recreation commission. Both the organization and the politician benefit, but do the constituents of the organization benefit if the new board member isn’t actually an ally?
Another way to redirect anger at the judge’s sentence might be to look for ways to educate. Might this be a call for organizations to educate board members on issues where their views might be assumed simply by the fact they joined an organization?
Turner and his father’s views on gender and consent are hopefully becoming less common. School-year, summer, and after-school programs to educate boys and girls about consent and violence starting in junior high are critical, and effective programs will be provided in a creative way that kids actually find interesting and relevant, not preachy and eye-roll inducing. Mass media and social media also have a big impact on our culture and values. The increasing number of media platforms may bring more female content creators and more diverse voices that will shape our collective values.
If anyone reading this wants to talk to someone now, you can call the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center’s hotline at 564-3696.
Susan Epstein founded Stanford University’s Office on Sexual Assault Prevention and Education the year after she graduated. She is a member of the California Bar, the Goleta School Board President, an attorney coach for the award-winning Dos Pueblos Mock Trial team, and a management consultant to nonprofit organizations and foundations.