Anger over Stanford rape verdict shows activism is paying off - Recall Judge Aaron Persky

Anger over Stanford rape verdict shows activism is paying off

As outrage tore across the country over the wrist slap of sentence in the Stanford sexual-assault case, rape survivors and their advocates quietly celebrated.

The anger meant the decades of activism, the efforts to eliminate a victim-blaming rape culture were finally starting to sink in.

And yet, the six-month sentence for a former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party — as well as disturbing statistics about continuing danger to women — indicate a campus culture that still doesn’t fully understand when physical interaction turns into a felony. That no truly means no.

A 2015 study conducted at 27 universities, from Ivy League to state schools, found 23 percent of female students had experienced unwanted sexual contact — either assault, or misconduct with violence or threats of violence — according to the Association of American Universities.

Despite a growing movement to require affirmative consent — that only yes means yes — on college campuses and to teach it to young people as early as middle school, those who encourage such efforts fear that a basic mentality of macho dominance and sexism remains embedded in our culture.

Stanford law Professor Michele Dauber, who has been counseling the woman assaulted outside the January 2015 party at Stanford by Brock Allen Turner, calls the mentality “toxic masculinity.”

“The culture of toxic masculinity can particularly form in single-sex athletics and fraternities,” Dauber said. “It’s not guaranteed, and I am sure there are fraternities where this is not the case, but it is a tendency — and it is dangerous.”

Turner, now 20, was a high school champion swimmer from Ohio in his first year at Stanford when he assaulted the woman, now 23. The two had been drinking at the Kappa Alpha fraternity party, and when a pair of passersby found them, Turner was on top of the partially clothed, unconscious woman behind a trash bin.

The attack, trial and sentencing have prompted soul searching by professors and students at Stanford — and defensiveness by fraternities in particular.

Fighting stereotype

Xavier Mignot, a senior at Sigma Nu, said fraternities have increased emphasis since the attack on educating members about what constitutes sexual assault. Signs reminding people of the concept of affirmative consent are now posted at most frat parties.

“It’s something we address strongly here, and I don’t put much into stereotypes about fraternities being out of control,” Mignot said. “I would not have joined a frat if I thought that was the case.”

Madeleine Rowell, a sophomore who lives nearby in the Columbae co-ed co-op, is more skeptical. She is helping to create an interactive guide of resources for sex attack victims, and said her team is already in contact with more than 100 people who have either been assaulted or have close friends who have been.

“This campus, I cannot say is a safe place for students,” said Rowell, co-chair of the student government Sexual Assault and Title IV Committee. “You basically need to have felony rape with multiple witnesses to be expelled here. That needs to be changed.”

Lack of consequences

Dauber said that in Stanford’s 130-year history, records show just one student expelled for sexual assault. Turner left on his own shortly after his arrest.

“The core problem here is that there has been a lack of serious consequences for a long time,” she said. “To me, (the Turner sentence) is a dangerous decision that has made women more vulnerable to sexual assault.”

She is helping lead efforts to recall the judge in the case, Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Stanford officials deny there is any shortage of vigilance regarding sexual assault, They issued a statement last week saying the university “did everything within its power to assure that justice was served in this case.”

A later statement pointed out that Stanford adopted the affirmative consent “yes means yes” standard in 2012, more than two years before it became law for universities in California that distribute state financial aid to students.

But experts say college policies and spotlights on high-profile cases are only part of the solution. Changing an entire societal attitude comes only in small steps, they say — and the Turner case illustrates the miles of work still required to make progress.

“Where did Brock Turner get the idea that particular sexual act at that particular time was OK?” said Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “What normalizes it — and what makes people say, ‘Well, that wasn't so bad?’ Those are the things we have to continue to work on.”

The troubling dynamic is anything but new. A case in point: An Ivy League college freshman who met her attacker at a party on a spring night, and both had been drinking. They kissed. She invited him to her room.

But as things escalated, the young woman resisted. She said no, and she tried to twist away. “C’mon baby,” he said. Then he pinned her down, and he didn’t stop.

It happened in 1984 — but even more than three decades later, some would still question whether it was sexual assault. She invited him to her room. She had been drinking. She had kissed him. She never reported it.

When Rachel Norton — that freshman back in 1984 — saw the minimal sentence Turner got, how he blamed alcohol and claimed the victim was eager for sex with him, she flashed back to her dorm room and the night she was raped.

She doubts her attacker has ever thought of himself as a rapist.

Teaching young people

Now, as a San Francisco school board member, Norton wants young people to know more about consensual sex and what constitutes sexual assault.

“We're trying as an education system to open up ways for kids to talk about the feelings we know they're having and at least some of the behaviors we know they're engaging in,” she said. “Maybe we can disrupt some of these really old patterns and attitudes that can lead to some really painful things that happen to people.”

California is backing that concept with new laws that embed the concept of affirmative consent on college campuses and in high school sex education classes.

Since January 2015, state law has required universities to adopt policies stating that students having sex must obtain clear consent from willing and not incapacitated partners. And before they get to college, students in California schools have access to one of the most comprehensive sex education programs in the country.

Laws that took effect this year added instruction on affirmative consent to sex education in middle and high school. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent,” high school students are told.

But California is one of only two states with such laws — New York is the other — and plenty of young people come here from states with far less instruction. Many states, including Turner’s native Ohio, don’t require sex education of any kind.

At Cornell University, law Professor Cynthia Bowman sits in on disciplinary hearings. “I saw a case where a guy got accused of sexual assault and it was his first sexual experience,” she said. “He didn't have a clue. He didn't know anything.”

Awareness essential

Norton, the San Francisco school board member, is sure education can make a difference. “We've been more successful with female empowerment,” she said. “But maybe we have to look a little bit more at boys and what messages are we sending.”

Advocates add that education alone isn’t enough — there is also a long way to go in improving how attacks are handled after they’ve happened.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, is pushing legislation allocating an extra $5 million for federal investigators to look into university conduct on sexual assault. Her HALT Campus Sexual Violence Act would also increase penalties for universities that fail to share information about sexual assault.

“Universities have to take this seriously,” Speier said. “And there has to be more education of the students about sexual assault — they have to pound this education into students at orientation, and again and again later.”

On Wednesday, she plans to lead about 30 members of Congress in reading into the record, on the House floor, the lengthy account of the Stanford case that Turner’s victim wrote.

“We have to elevate the awareness of this issue among members of Congress and the public in general,” Speier said. “They truly don’t all get it. I think we have a culture problem here, on a national, state and local level and in our institutions.”

And then there is the age-old problem of victims not reporting crimes out of fear of being shamed, blamed or ignored. According to the American Association of Universities survey, only about one-fourth of students who said they had been sexually assaulted went to campus officials or police.

Rape goes unreported

One of those who didn’t was a UC Berkeley student who said she was raped three years ago in her dorm room — and who was an advocate for rape victims.

She knew her attacker and had walked home with him after a late-night party, she said. When she resisted as he kissed her, he covered her mouth, choked and raped her, she said.

“And I just kind of froze,” said the woman, who asked to not be named for privacy reasons.

She had been involved in campus activities to encourage rape survivors to seek help, but when it happened to her, she didn’t believe anything would come from filing a complaint.

“I had helped a lot of people and had seen the outcomes,” she said. “The most I could expect was him writing an apology letter or 800-word essay.”

Lax enforcement

Numbers back her up. Across the country, more than 40 percent of universities have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the last five years, according to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report.

Dozens of universities and colleges have been investigated for violations related to lax investigations and enforcement of sexual assault policies. And a survey this year at Stanford found that 28 percent of female students, and 45 percent of males, thought it was unlikely the university would take action if they reported a sexual assault.

“I think the outrage (regarding Turner) is a sign that attitudes are shifting,” said Henriquez, of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

But, she added, “they aren't shifting quickly enough.”


Originally posted by The San Francisco Chronicle

By Kevin Fagan and Jill Tucker

Click here to read the original article