Silver Linings in the Brock Turner Sexual Assault Case

Bystander intervention and why it’s still on us to prevent sexual assault.

Posted Jun 11, 2016

Like many people, I am horrified that Stanford University student Brock Turner received only a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside of a fraternity. Also appalling is that he and his supporters continue to minimize his actions. Turner’s father for example, portrays his son as the victim, saying that “twenty minutes of action” ruined his son’s life. The university’s (and the judge’s) handling of the case also smacked of victim blaming and race, gender, and class privilege.

But if we scratch this depressing surface we find evidence of change in the form of widespread outrage and a courageous survivor. We also find evidence of human goodness and the important role of bystander intervention. Indeed, were it not for the actions of Stanford graduate students Peter Jonsson and Carl Fredrik Arndt, who happened upon the assault as they rode their bikes on campus that night, it’s likely that Turner would have gone unidentified and a rape completed. Instead, Jonsson and Arndt yelled at Turner, tackled him after he took off running, and called the police.

Ideally bystanders would have intervened earlier. For instance, highly intoxicated women are at risk for sexual assault. The victim’s friends, party hosts, or others might have noticed her state and kept her close. According to some partygoers, Turner displayed some red flags of the typical perpetrator and someone should have kept an eye on him as well. Too often though, bystander action is impeded because bystanders don’t notice what’s going on due to distraction, don’t define it as intervention-appropriate due to ignorance, fail to take responsibility for intervention because they lack empathy or assume others are responsible, are unsure what to do or whether it will be effective, or social norms preclude intervention. Addressing these barriers is typically a key component of sexual assault prevention programs and these programs are often weaker at private universities.

The culture of some college fraternities and men’s collegiate sports teams poses barriers to bystander intervention. They have cultures that support sexual conquest over sexual consent. They don’t define sexual contact with those unable to provide consent as sexual assault (though it is). Some have norms that sexually objectify women and promote alcohol-and-drug facilitated sexual assault. Other norms penalize men for interfering when comrades cross the sexual consent line, which they place in the category of “cock-blocking.” They have norms that protect perpetrators so as not to besmirch the reputation of their organization. They resist sexual assault prevention education and steps to reduce sexual assault perpetration and universities let them get away with it.

But if Brock Turner was a product of such a culture, I think most of us would agree that’s no excuse. Many men reject this type of masculinity culture, choosing masculinities that don’t require, condone, or excuse sexual violence. Ditto for his claim that a campus drinking culture and his inebriation was to blame for his actions. While most of us would certainly agree that alcohol intoxication can lead to poor decision-making, I think we would also agree that people that commit crimes while drunk are still responsible for the consequences of their actions. 

As we work to dismantle rape cultures and reduce victim blaming, bystander intervention remains a key part of sexual assault prevention and justice for survivors. For example, in another recent case of bystander action, three women at a California restaurant acted when they saw a woman’s date put drugs into her drink while she was in the bathroom. One went and alerted the woman while the other two informed the bartender.  Management reviewed security footage and called the police, leading to the man’s arrest.

Vice President Biden is spokesperson for the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign which calls on us to intervene to prevent sexual assault. The It’s on Us pledge asks that we make a personal commitment to keep women and men safe from sexual assault, and promise to be “not a bystander to the problem, but part of the solution.” According to the campaign, this requires recognizing that non-consensual sexual contact is sexual assault, intervening in situations where consent “has not or can’t be given,” doing our part to communicate to that sexual assault is unacceptable and, supporting survivors.  

The more you learn about sexual assault the more likely it is that you might become a bystander intervention hero.  RAINN is a great source of information regarding sexual violence, including incest. RAINN provides support to survivors, information on the effects of sexual assault (like PTSD), how you can support someone who has been sexually assaulted, and details on state laws and policies.  The Start By Believing campaign of End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) also provides good information on how we can support survivors.

References

Banyard, V. L. (2015). Pieces of bystander action. In Toward the Next Generation of Bystander Prevention of Sexual and Relationship Violence: Springer Briefs In Criminology (pp. 25-51). New York: Springer International Publishing.

Burn, S. M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60(11-12), 779-792.

Please support the local organizations in your community that work to prevent sexual violence and support survivors.