Who Wins When We Incarcerate Brock Turner?

Content Warning: Includes graphic descriptions of sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape.

Brock Turner, the ex-Stanford student convicted of three counts of felony assault for raping an unconscious woman, sits in court. The judge, Aaron Persky, declares matter-of-factly: “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.” The maximum sentence Turner could have received is 14 years in prison; the minimum is 2. Turner walked away with a sentence of six months in jail (now talk of reducing to three) and three years of probation.

Communities across the nation have responded to this sentencing with understandable disbelief and outrage. Turner, the embodiment of white, masculine privilege, was granted a rare lenient sentence in today’s era of mass incarceration. The survivor Turner assaulted, on the other hand, was asked what she wore on the night of the rape and other questions designed to attack her character, question her narrative and delegitimize her experience.

Justice was not served here.

In the days since the sentencing, many of us have condemned the outcome of Brock Turner’s case. We have rightly indicted Brock Turner’s privilege, the sympathy of a judge willing to overlook the trauma and injury of a survivor in favor of the “all-star swimmer” of a perpetrator, the callous and responsibility-dodging letter Turner’s father wrote in defense of his son. We have publicly shared the powerful letter written by the unnamed survivor of this case, and argued that the outcome of this case should have been—

Should have been what?

What does a just conclusion to this case look like?

Some of us supply a simple answer: more years in prison, a harsher sentence. We have seen a range of such responses on our Facebook feeds and in verbal conversations: a punishment that fits the crime. Many of us want Turner to rot in prison until he acknowledges the severity of his crime and pays his debt to society. And even after, his name on the registry of sex offenders will forever remind of the damage he as done. Turner ruined his victim’s life, many maintain; the legal system should ruin his.

In other words, justice is punishment.

As a collective of individuals no doubt committed to ending sexual violence we must ask ourselves this: what are we fighting for? When the authors of this piece see people calling for incarceration as justice, we wonder what these same people believe about prisons being able to provide that justice. Many activists and their communities have decried prisons and jails as another form of torture, a means by which Black and brown bodies are locked up by the state and removed from their communities and families. Many call for an end to prisons that dehumanize their queer and trans inmates, prisons that suck up resources for expansion that could otherwise be used towards education and community resource-building, private prisons that profit off of removing society’s undesirables.

This same prison-industrial-complex that we fight against in our work and decry as inhuman and brutal is suddenly our friend when a cisgender woman gets raped? When a cisgender, heterosexual white athletic man rapes? It is undeniable that our perception of this case has been shaped by the circumstances it has played out in. It matches our socially-ingrained idea of sexual assault: that sexual assault happens because of (menacing, masculine, dangerous) predators looking to assault (vulnerable, innocent, women) strangers just minding their own business. That the facts of this case seem to line up with the idea of rape we decry in our heads only makes it easier for us to feel morally justified in bringing the hammer of retributive justice down on Turner: he’s a criminal rapist of the worst kind, we tell ourselves; he raped because he’s a rapist. He deserves a harsh and unrelenting punishment, the least of which must be prison.

But the real causes of sexual assault are more complex than this dichotomy of predatory rapists and helpless victims. Sexual assault happens firstly because from a young age, we are taught that our identities and privileges entitle us to other people’s bodies: that white people can touch Black and brown women’s hair without permission; that cisgender people can bluntly ask transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people about their genitalia; that men are always entitled to women’s/femme’s/nonbinary folx’s energy, emotional labor, and bodies. Sexual assault happens because the knowledge that would allow us to practice safer, communicative sex is glaringly absent from our high school and even college educations, and we have only the unrealistic glamour-sex shown in movies and on TV as reference guides. Sexual assault happens because on college campuses like Stanford’s, alcohol and party culture create situations where we can act on that sense of entitlement we’ve learned we have over others. It’s hard enough to refuse a hug when your friend comes rushing towards you with their arms open. It’s even harder to refuse sex when alcohol is involved, the condoms are out, and the lights are already off.

What all of this means is that as a society we create Brock Turners, and as a campus we enable them. Not just Brock Turners, but all kinds of perpetrators of nonconsent — the 6-foot-3-inch rower who demands to know how a trans person masturbates in a crowded frosh hall party; the woman who gets the cute guy down the hall black-out drunk so she can finally see him naked; the fraternity that hazes a member who chooses not to have sex or engage in hookup culture. This realization underlies a simple fact that we are terrified to admit: perpetrators of nonconsent — including sexual assault — are not monsters; they are us. They are our family members and our partners; our congressmen, political leaders, and activists; they are our best friends; they are you, us, and everyone else; they are people who don’t “look like rapists.”

A friend once retorted, after hearing this argument: “if everyone is nonconsensual, then what will you do? Arrest and incarcerate everyone?” The absurdity of this conclusion reveals that prison is not and cannot be the answer. We as a society do not win when we champion incarceration as “justice.” And, on another more subtle point, we as a society do not win when we overlook the socio cultural factors that create the false dichotomy of “rapists” and “victims” in favor of dispositional arguments: “he raped because he’s evil.” “She is innocent because she is respectable.” The reality of sexual assault is far more nuanced.

Perhaps some of the best examples of this nuanced necessity is the experience Erika Lynn has had being raped. They were raped on the last day of Spring Quarter, 2015, June 12th. In many ways, the story embodies our cultural narrative of the evil, Brock Turneresque perpetrator. He was tall, white, male, muscular, conventionally attractive, and successful in his tech startup career. He was aggressive, drunk, and left more scars than the emotional ones.

But that is where the similarities end.

He is trans-attracted. He didn’t penetrate Erika Lynn. He made them penetrate him. Afterwards, he laid them on the couch and laid himself on them, and started chewing on their breasts while looking them in the eyes and smiling.

One way to look at this is to simply say that he raped because he is an inherently evil person, that this rape stems from a character defect, that he is irredeemable because of this action. But to take such a reductionist view ignores crucial elements of his story. If we want to understand what happened and how to respond, we cannot ignore that.

We cannot ignore the perpetrator’s experiences being attracted to trans people, which many trans activists like Laverne Cox have noted is extremely stigmatized. Due to the extreme transmisogyny in today’s society, trans-attracted people often internalize self-hatred, despair and worthlessness, hiding this facet of their romantic and sexual identities from the world. Toxic masculinity, on top of this, makes any aspect of a man that does not fit into societal expectations about strength, power, and dominance into deeply shameful characteristics. Erika Lynn’s rapist harmed them — not because he is a morally bankrupt human, but because he grew up in a culture — our culture — which gave him no ways to express his desires, feelings, and needs.

Erika Lynn saw those same experiences in their rapist. Behind his drunk eyes were tears; behind his tall frame and aggressive actions was a man who had been constantly belittled, constantly maligned, if not explicitly than implicitly on a daily basis. The same way that Erika Lynn, someone who has lived more of their life in the closet than not, had lived for so many years.

How can Erika Lynn condemn their rapist given those circumstances? How can Erika Lynn, and others, not empathize with him? How can we not help but see part of ourselves in the perpetrator of this case?

Too often, people refuse to empathize with rapists for fear that by doing so we are somehow condoning what they have done. To be clear, Erika Lynn’s rapist must be held accountable for his actions. But that accountability does not happen through replicating the same systems of harm in which he grew up; throwing him in prison will not make him accountable, nor will it solve anything. What he needs is not just rehabilitation and therapy, but also a cultural shift in which people are given healthy avenues to express attraction to trans individuals and are not forced to subvert themselves to feel socially, mentally, and even physically secure.

Erika Lynn’s rapist has a story we must listen to. So too must we be open to listening to Brock Turner’s — even if he is so deeply entrenched in a web of internalized patriarchy and white supremacy that he is unable to or too afraid to admit that story to himself. We need to allow perpetrators like Brock Turner to say publicly that they have raped and that they are learning how to make amends — something that does not happen today due to the unilateral criminality we stamp rapists with. Brock’s unwillingness to show remorse is not a reflection of his inherent evil. It is a reflection of the communities he has been socialized in, and of our cultural unwillingness to allow for meaningful conversation from the perspective of someone who has committed serious and violent nonconsent.

This is not an excuse for rapists or a justification of the harm they have caused. But we must understand that rapists are not an inherent, vile category of humans unto themselves. They are a manifestation of our culture. They are a manifestation of all of us. And healing the harm they commit against us and against others means understanding that we must also heal and fix ourselves and our culture.

What does this suggest about Brock Turner? If he’s not a monster, not irredeemable, then what consequences does he deserve?

To be completely clear: it ought not to be anyone’s mandate to decide what happens to a rapist other than the victim’s. This brings us to a potential contradiction: if no individual or system can understand the hurt experienced by a survivor better than the survivor themselves, what do we do when survivors like Emily Doe in the Brock Turner case call for more punitive consequences?

We must first understand that such calls for punishment grow in part out of outrage at survivors’ systemic neglect and mistreatment. When judges are unwilling to grant any form of justice to survivors, let alone restorative or transformative justice, skewing punitive may be the only way to get any justice at all — and in the case of Emily Doe and Brock Turner’s case, even that wasn’t enough. What we should work towards is a world where survivors’ needs are both respected and met by society and its institutions: if a survivor wants retribution based on their experiences, they should receive it; if they want restoration, they should receive it.

In that world, we must fight for more restorative norms and options for survivors to choose from, so that our future can be one in which people like Brock Turner can recognize the hurt they have inflicted on the survivor and understand the internalized beliefs and ideas that led them to inflict that hurt. Maybe community service that involves sex education of masculinity and privilege; maybe rehabilitative therapy that brings other perpetrators of sexual assault together to reflect on their actions. Maybe community healing that carefully brings perpetrators into contexts where they can apologize to and interact with people and communities they have hurt; maybe mandatory education that teaches self-awareness and mindfulness of one’s own identities. The point of all this is that alternatives to incarceration exist and should be explored.

How can we go about creating this world which we have outlined above?

It starts, first and foremost, with a critical understanding of our reactions to the Brock Turner case. Many of us have seen the petition circulating the Internet calling for the removal of judge Aaron Persky for his actions in the Brock Turner case; it has over a million signatures and continues to get visibility. If this petition succeeds, it will prompt other judges to consider more punitive sentencings as a norm — not because the survivor’s needs must be met, but simply because retribution will become the new precedent.

Or perhaps another petition originating from Stanford, calling for the university releasing the names of all perpetrators convicted of sexual assault on campus. If this petition succeeds, then it will prompt students on campus to blacklist said perpetrators in all aspects of academic and student life, likely forcing perpetrators to leave campus and enroll elsewhere — cutting off all chances at restoration in the process, and simply pushing rapists onto other colleges.

The real solutions here must consider effectiveness over satisfying our moral outrage. We need more intentional approaches on consent education and sex ed at all levels of education, more resources for sexual assault prevention on college campuses, more care and respect given to survivors of all kinds to meet their needs. We need programs that teach healthy expressions of masculinity, healthy and communicative boundary-setting in relationships and community-based efforts to promote mental health and well-being on college campuses. We need, most of all, to be able to see rapists as people who can become better, to indict the societal nonconsent and other systems that they and we are all entrenched in.


It is incredibly difficult to look past our anger towards this case, to look past immediate retribution in favor of more restorative solutions. We may be so disgusted with Turner’s callousness and lack of remorse that we believe any solution less severe than incarceration is too lenient. These are real and valid emotions, and we are justified in having them. Yet, we would hope that the society we want to create is one in which people who make mistakes — however egregious they may be — are allowed to grow as a result. This does not mean rapists should face no consequences, but it does mean we need to think about consequences beyond and outside of punitive or retributive justice as default.

Ultimately, our society needs to have the humanity to believe that people can grow, that violent and abusive behavior can be rehabilitated and changed instead of being punished behind bars. In that vein, we need a form of justice that focuses more on transforming those systems that create Brock Turners and less on crucifying individual perpetrators to appease our sense of moral right and wrong.

When we get angry in response to these high profile cases, not only people but systems deserve our collective rage and organizing intent. We must combat white supremacy, societal nonconsent, toxic masculinity, cisnormativity and other systems that form the backdrop of the stage Brock Turner is on, a stage that enabled the visible sexual assault of one woman and the invisible assault and nonconsent of countless others, each and every day.

Originally published on Stanford Politics.


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