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Turning the Page on Defining Sexual Assault

By Fiona Burke, Communications Intern for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Most people have heard of Brock Turner and how he got off with serving only three months of jail time, but many people didn’t know that he was never charged with rape. California law* defines rape as “an act of sexual intercourse,” which means that penetration with fingers – as in the case of Brock Turner – is not considered rape. But to me, a college student who’s intimately aware of the pain of sexual assault, Brock Turner is a rapist.

This is why I was glad to see Turner’s mug shot featured in a new edition of a criminal justice textbook on the page with the explanation of state and federal definitions of rape. Not surprisingly, the professor who collaborated on writing the textbook and pushed for the inclusion of the mugshot is also her campus’s Title IX coordinator. In a recent interview, she said that because of the intense media coverage around the case, students often ask about Brock Turner when the subject of campus violence is discussed.  The intention of adding Turner’s image was to help students gain a broader understanding of what rape is.

For many survivors of sexual assault, hearing such a narrow definition of rape (like California law’s definition) contributes to the feeling that people won’t take you seriously if you were to come forward about an instance of sexual assault. This idea is reinforced by a recent survey conducted by NSVRC where nearly one fifth of respondents (17%) did not recognize unwanted touch, groping or fondling as sexual assault. Levels of awareness were lowest among men and younger adults. This is why cases like this are so important in educating the public.

I have male friends who have blatantly denied the accuracy of the statistic that 1 in 5 women will experience rape in their lifetime. Survivors of sexual assault in their lives aren’t sharing their stories with them, so to them it’s not real. These same friends have explained that they believe something only counts as rape if it’s committed by a stranger or if the non-consenting party said “no” explicitly. Of course, we know that is not the case. Most people who perpetrate sexual assault are someone the victim knows and trusts.  And of course, the absence of a “no” doesn’t mean consent has been given – sex without consent is rape.

As a woman on a college campus I find the 1 in 5 statistic is easy to believe. I’ve heard story after story about uncomfortable, dangerous, and coercive sexual experiences from my friends. They’re rarely confident enough to call it rape outright, not sure where the lines are and when they were crossed. If you’re not even sure what happened to you counts as rape, it can be even harder to confidently speak up. When survivors are afraid to talk about what happened, then the facts are easier to deny for those who haven’t had to confront rape personally, and thus a cycle of silence and denial is created.

While Turner’s lenient sentence was disappointing, it started a conversation. The inclusion of his mugshot in this textbook has continued it. Keeping the conversation current and applicable to issues we hear about in the news can help more effectively educate people like my male friends to broaden their limited – and often inaccurate – definitions of sexual assault. Perhaps more importantly though, it could also speak to survivors who are still searching to make sense of the things they’ve gone through.

* Editor's Note: In response to the Brock Turner sentencing decision, in 2016 the State of California passed into law Assembly Bill 2888 which mandates minimum prison sentences for sex crimes. Assembly Bill 701 also became law, which added the following passage to the California Penal Code:

(a) The Legislature finds and declares that all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault may be considered rape for purposes of the gravity of the offense and the support of survivors.
(b) This section is declarative of existing law.

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