By Lisa Mak
Like many others, I was outraged by the outcome of Brock Turner’s case for his rape of an unconscious, intoxicated woman behind a dumpster. This woman was brave enough to go through the process of a 16-month criminal case. She wrote an extremely powerful and heartbreaking statement that she read in court when addressing how Turner’s assault has forever changed her life. Prosecutors had sought a six-year prison sentence for Turner’s crime. Yet Judge Aaron Persky only imposed six months of prison with probation, stating that a longer sentence “would have a severe impact” on Turner and that Turner “will not be a danger to others.”
Unfortunately, this painfully skewed result, the biased way the case was portrayed, and the outrageous statements from Turner’s family and friends defending his actions, are all too familiar features of a system that often does not treat rape and assault for what they are – violent, heinous crimes that violate basic human dignity. The events and reactions in the Turner case remind me of cases I’ve litigated where employees were sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped in the workplace.
It seems like the same story every time.
The victim is blamed and doubted. Questions may be asked about whether she was somehow responsible for what happened. Were you drunk at the company party? Why did you enter his hotel room to talk about work? Have you ever sent a risqué email at work? Did you date that co-worker? Why can’t you remember all the details? Are you sure the relationship wasn’t consensual? Investigations into workplace sexual harassment complaints may not happen, or when they do, they may be conducted in a way that is slanted against the victim. Given the difficulty of coming forward, it is unsurprising that many sexual harassment cases go unreported.
The perpetrator is protected. He is given the benefit of the doubt. He may receive little to no discipline for his misconduct. The victim is advised that everyone is “moving on” from the situation. To add insult to injury, often employees who complain about sexual harassment will be fired in retaliation. For example, in her lawsuit against Tinder in 2014, co-founder Whitney Wolfe alleged that she was forced out of the company after her complaints of discrimination and harassment.
There is often a mistaken focus on the impact on the perpetrator’s career and reputation, as opposed to the physical and psychological impact on the victim. When former Dean of Berkeley Law School Sujit Choudhry was accused of sexually harassing his executive assistant, university officials were allegedly reluctant to terminate him for fear of ruining his career. He was never in fact terminated, and resigned after a lawsuit was filed against him earlier this year.
Similarly, when Turner’s father pleaded for leniency for his son, he ignorantly argued: “[Turner’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” This, compared with the life of the woman Turner raped, who explained: “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty … You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself.” Yet Judge Persky remained concerned about the “severe impact” a longer prison sentence would have on Turner, the convicted criminal.
Whether sexual assault happens at work, at school, in a home, or anywhere else, the same infuriating narratives keep surfacing – blaming the victim, doubting the crimes, and protecting the perpetrator. Language is used to downplay the severity of the attacks. Turner’s friend, Leslie Rasmussen, submitted an equally outrageous letter of support for him for trial, writing: “[W]here do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
This isn’t about being politically correct. This isn’t about alcohol or promiscuity or the tarnished futures of privileged individuals who chose to violate the rights of others.
This is about calling out sexual harassment, assault, and rape for what it is. This is about respecting women and human beings and common decency. Cases like Brock Turner, along with the many cases of workplace sexual harassment we see, underscore the need to focus on the consequences caused by the perpetrator and not on rationalizations for the violent conduct. When survivors of assault and harassment are able to come forward and speak their truth, their courage should always be met with an outcry of support and a fair chance at justice.