Is empathy finite? Part Two: Brock Turner

This is the second of two blogs about recent sex offences that have made the news, and is about Brock Turner. The prior blog was about prolific child abuser, Richard Huckle and can be found here. In that case, my ability to have any empathy for the perpetrator was severely tested. In this case, it isn’t my empathy that is under question (because I don’t have the same discomfort in trying to understand the position of all the different parties in this case), but that within our whole culture.

I’m sure you will all have read the story about how Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a frat party and her eloquent response to his six month sentence.

What was notable was that the case polarised the world into two camps. Either this was the fault of one individual who did something awful, or he was just the unfortunate example that got punished of a problematic culture of drinking and promiscuity amongst young adults at American universities. Here is how the two alternative stories are framed:

1) Everyone was drunk at the party and coupling off with strangers for casual sex, and that was part of what is expected at frat parties, everyone knows that. The guy was very drunk and paired off with the girl by mutual agreement. They were kissing and she consented to go back to his dorm, but they fell over and were kissing and fumbling on the ground mutually enjoying the sexual activity and he didn’t notice that she lost consciousness at some point before vigilantes interfered. He was a promising scholar and sportsman who has lost a prestigious place at Stanford and will serve six months in jail and be on the sex offenders register for life. He has been an unfortunate example of taking accepted culture one step too far and the poor guy will be paying for that for his whole life in the change in his career trajectory.

Or

2) The victim was really really drunk whilst the perpetrator was just a bit drunk, and he had a pattern of being sexually aggressive to women in similar circumstances. He had made sexual approaches towards the victim’s sister and was knocked back, so he tried it on with her and realised she was too drunk to resist (despite having a long term boyfriend she was committed to) so he led her off and she fell down unconscious by some bins on the way out. Instead of calling for help for her he sexually assaulted her injuring her genitals and would have raped her if not for the intervention of two passing cyclists who noticed her being obviously unconscious. She regained consciousness three hours later with no memory of what had happened, injured and bleeding in a hospital where she then had to be forensically examined for evidence of rape, whilst he expressed no concern for her during several hours of being questioned by police, claimed she gave consent and denied she was unconscious. She then had a year of stress building up to the trial, where she was cross examined and blamed for what happened to her. She has been traumatised for life, and this sentence sets a precedent of rape culture on college campuses being not such a big deal.

I think the evidence best supports the latter version, and the conviction suggests that the court agreed. But I think there is some truth in both stories, because as I have often said before, behaviour almost always reflects the person’s experience and the context as well as the choice that they made. There is a massive problem in modern western culture, particularly amongst young adults, in which sexual coercion is normalised and blamed on alcohol, which is consumed to excess. It is also scarily prevalent. You might call it a rape culture. About 20 million out of 112 million women (18.0%) in the United States have been raped during their lifetime. Only 16% of all rapes were reported to law enforcement. In 2006 alone, 300,000 college women (5.2%) were raped. Among college women, about 12% of rapes were reported to law enforcement. There are similar figures for the UK. And it makes me wonder – why do we not have basic empathy and respect for each other, even when we are intoxicated and disinhibited?

The culture of deifying talented sportsmen in American universities and the tendency for athletic teams to spend a lot of time together and sometimes live together also appears to have contributed to the answer. A recent study shows that male intercollegiate athletes accounted for 19% of all sexual violence cases reported but only comprised 3% of the student populations. Amongst these groups, attitudes to women are problematic. The researchers found many more “beliefs and situational definitions that excuse rape or define assaultive situations as something other than rape” in athletes. Amongst sportsmen there were also distinctive narratives. The researchers reported that amongst athletes “hypermasculine discourse includes war-like, misogynistic, and sexually violent analogies” and that this was directly related to the difference in attitudes towards sexual coercion. 29.5% of college men in the study sample had insisted on having sex when their partner did not want to, and 5% have used force and 5% have used threats to get a partner to submit to sexual activity. Attitudes toward women were less progressive and rape myth acceptance was more prevalent amongst athletes. You can see echoes of this in the letter from Turner’s father, which blames a culture of drinking and promiscuity rather than his son’s actions and displays no empathy for the victim. Likewise the same theme is present in Turner’s testimony, and in the (repugnant) letter sent to the judge by a childhood friend of Turner who claimed that the accusations levied against him were down to “political correctness”.

The truth is that whilst we can take actions to help reduce the availability and vulnerability of potential victims by helping to educate teens and young adults about the dangers of binge drinking, the main problem is in the attitudes and actions of those who use coercive sexual behaviour. In the words of an infographic from facebook, the causes of rape are 0% slutty clothes, 0% alcohol, 0% college culture and 100% rapists. And in the words of another infographic:

“She was drunk, what did she expect?” “A hangover, that’s what she expected.” Drinking isn’t a crime, rape is. Stop victim blaming.

Whatever else contributed to Brock Turner being in that position, let me quote the letter from the survivor of this incident, “we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error”. We need to teach every child about privacy and consent from when they are very small to when they are adults. Here is how I explain it to young children: If somebody wants to touch a part of you that is covered by your swimming costume or to put anything in your mouth, then they need to ask you and not do it unless you say it is okay. And if you want to touch any part of another person that is covered by their swimming costume or put anything in their mouth then you need to ask them, and only do it if they say it is okay. You should only say yes to someone doing that if it is someone who needs to touch you to help with an illness or injury and Mummy or Daddy are with you and say it is okay. If anyone does something like that when you don’t want them to or it doesn’t feel right, you should always talk to me about it or someone else that you trust”. Here is how I explain it to a teenager “Don’t ever pressure anyone else or let anyone pressure you to do things that don’t feel right or comfortable to you. If you aren’t sure, you can always talk to me about it. That includes anything about sex or relationships”.

Whilst the mythology of false allegations implies otherwise, and real life is always more ambiguous than it appears in theory, consent is actually pretty simple. If somebody is in a fit state of mind to make decisions and actively says yes and reciprocates, then they consent. If that isn’t the case then they don’t. When this video came out I wondered why they needed to spell out that if a person is unconscious they can’t consent. Now we know why. It is only a basic level of empathy that is required. The golden rule of do as you would be done by. But it involved placing yourself in the other person’s perspective and understanding that the person you really want to have sex with might not really want to have sex with you, and if they did they might want to do so after a gradual progression of the relationship and without intoxication that would impair their judgement.

On the other hand, one bit of empathy is transparently clear from this case. The judge, a former Stanford athlete himself, appears to have had too much empathy for the impact of the sentence on the life of Brock Turner, perhaps because of over-identification. Whilst I respect that he was a prosecutor of sexual offences, and may also be comparing this assault (which was interrupted, and thus never progressed to what we in the UK would define as rape) to other cases from his career that involved violence or threats, and whilst it may well be that Turner has now learned his lesson and will be very clear about obtaining consent in the future, I was not persuaded by anything I have read that Turner accepts responsibility for his actions. In fact, it appears he only accepts responsibility for drinking, and not for any sexual offence. He pleaded not guilty, and amazingly, he is going to appeal even this remarkably light sentence. On that basis I believe it is important that the sentence reflects the gravity of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, and his lack of genuine insight or remorse, as well as setting an important precedent to show that college culture or use of alcohol is not an excuse for sexual assault.

In my next blog I may talk about my own experiences of unwanted sexual contact. But for now I want to finish by remembering that two students noticed what was happening and intervened. Many people would ride right on by, and it may be that their Swedish rather than American/British norms were part of what protected this woman from being raped, but in this instance two people saw what was happening was wrong and they did something about that. And the victim has not only become a survivor, she has found her voice and used it amazingly articulately to become an advocate for all women who have experienced unwanted or coercive sexual interactions. I think that is a salient reminder that no matter how skew the norms can get within certain small pockets of society, the rest of us can still recognise right and wrong, and protect each other. However dark the world is, we are not entirely powerless. We can prevent some people from being harmed, and can help others to recover from these experiences. We might not be able to change the world immediately, but we are making slow steady progress over time, and at an individual level and at a societal level, things can be better if the rest of us play our part. No matter how overwhelming the rape culture might feel, we can all be part of the solution.

Edit: I have since read that Brock Turner may have photographed the breasts of the victim whilst she was unconscious, and another stranger may have seen him do so, then checked she was still breathing and put her into the recovery position prior to the sexual assault. If this is true, then any pretence that Turner was unaware of her being unconscious is thrown out the window. It would also appear that he had a history of drinking and using drugs prior to attending Stanford, so the attribution of the cause to the culture of drinking and promiscuity at the college seems like even more of a red herring than it did before.

2 thoughts on “Is empathy finite? Part Two: Brock Turner

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