Many were shocked to find out that Brock Turner received only a six-month prison sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old woman at Stanford, but campus leaders at Penn involved in communities of sexual violence survivors were not surprised.
“I know of so many cultural examples and experiences of friends that it’s not uncommon for the punishment to be so minor,” rising College senior and co-chair of the Penn Association for Gender Equality Julia Slater said.
The President of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention and rising College senior Isabella Auchus agreed.
“Honestly it wasn’t too surprising,” she said. “The short sentence and the victim blaming because that’s just what we’ve always seen.”
What is uncommon about this instance is the unusual amount of media coverage it has received, which many students were quick to note was due to the privilege and status of the perpetrator.
“I think a lot more people know about this case than other cases because he was a Stanford swimmer and came from a good background and a wealthy family,” Auchus said. “The boy was a young white male who had a huge future. Those are sympathy-getting factors that make this seem like a more newsworthy story than other cases, not that it necessarily is.”
“It wouldn’t have received that much attention if it was a Hispanic athlete,” rising College junior and Vice President of Recruitment for Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault Ramon Garcia Gomez noted. “You can’t deny that.”
Auchus, Slater and Garcia Gomez all noted similarities between Stanford and Penn as prestigious institutions with promising students, which often contributes to a culture of silence.
“I think Penn and Stanford are comparable institutions in terms of being academically rigorous and having reputations to uphold,” Slater said.
“People are worried about their career and the future if their name comes out as a sex offender,” Auchus said. “That makes it even more difficult for people who are trying to get justice under the legal system.”
Garcia Gomez also cited the presence of “huge egos” at elite universities as a factor contributing to the prevalence of sexual assault.
“They feel like they could get away with it, or that they’re entitled to it,” he said.
“In general the way that sexual assaults are handled in this college scenario versus our college scenario and other colleges is probably fairly similar in that it is difficult for the victim or survivor to be believed,” Auchus said.
Garcia Gomez and Auchus also noted the similarities between Greek life and at Penn and Stanford as a factor that can contribute to a culture of sexual assault and victim blaming.
“A lot of these [assaults] are more likely to happen at frat parties than anywhere else.” Garcia Gomez said.
“It has a lot to do with the circumstances, like that alcohol was involved was a big thing where people always like to question ‘Oh, whose fault was it?’” Auchus said.
In this case, backlash towards Turner’s sympathizers has been swift. The judge faces a recall effort, and friends and family who wrote letters excusing the actions of the rapist have been ridiculed, which Slater felt signaled cultural shift.
“I was heartened to see that so many people were taking very vocal stances in solidarity with not just the survivor in the case but with all survivors,” Slater said. “It says that people are listening and people are becoming aware of how pervasive a problem this is,”
The campus leaders also noted how the heated reactions demonstrate increased awareness and frustration with reduced sentences for rapists due to factors like socioeconomic status.
“It’s a good thing that people are standing up and getting angry and realizing that there needs to be a shift in rape culture, especially towards those who were more lenient and supportive of Brock,” Auchus said.
“I think that shows that people are fed up with how the courts give leniency to some people over others,” Garcia Gomez said.
Slater said she was focused on “the ways that we can mobilize all that energy going forward, so that it’s not just another case that’s swept under the rug, that it actually makes a dent in the culture and raises consciousness about rape culture.”
“I hope that it might give survivors who may have been hesitant to speak out for fear of being judged or invalidated the courage to speak and the supportive cultural climate to talk about the issues and to heal,” Slater said.
She also noted the existing support system of resources at the Women’s Center, which “handles [cases] with the utmost integrity.”
Students mentioned the existing efforts of the University to address sexual assault by recently adding two new positions dedicated to prevention and awareness, as well as groups on campus like ASAP, which stands for Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, and puts on the annual Take Back the Night event, and the V-Day Campaign’s Vagina Monologues.
“You can get support and at least some sort of cultural poetic justice if a criminal justice is unavailable,” Slater said.
All students were emphatic that the incident was not isolated to Stanford.
“Because it happened at Stanford it might have happened at Penn,” Garcia Gomez said. “I wouldn’t have been totally surprised.”
“This is not a problem that is just at one or two schools,” Auchus said. “I definitely think it could have [happened at Penn]. I think it could have happened anywhere.”
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