Earlier this month, Brock Allen Turner, the ex-Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a fraternity dumpster, received two sentences. The first, from the Santa Clara County Superior Court, was light: six months in jail, lest a longer stay “have a severe impact on him,” as Judge Aaron Persky put it. The second, from the court of public opinion, was far more severe—and revealing.
Turner’s defense, like that of so many offenders before him, was to downplay his assault as a drunken mistake. This wasn’t rape, wrote Leslie Rasmussen, a childhood friend, in a letter to Persky. This was “idiot boys and girls having too much to drink.” A kid’s life shouldn’t be ruined, Turner’s dad argued, because of “20 minutes of action.” Turner weighed in too, saying he’d been “shattered”–not by remorse over the assault but by “party culture.”
The public by and large bought none of it. In the days following Turner’s sentencing, his defenders were excoriated on social media. A million people signed a petition to recall Persky from the bench. And millions more shared a statement from Turner’s victim, which ripped his reasoning to shreds. “We were both drunk,” she wrote. “The difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately and run away.”
Demanding that a criminal be held accountable for his actions should not seem so extraordinary. But in America, forced sex with someone you know—a friend, a boyfriend, someone you met at a party—wasn’t even really considered rape until the mid-1980s, after a landmark study found that 1 in 4 college women said they’d been sexually assaulted. Since then, countless accusations have been downplayed or outright dismissed under questionable circumstances, especially if the accused is privileged and/or white. (One recent example: the student at Dartmouth whose attorneys successfully argued that he’d had “drunken, awkward sex,” despite testimony that he’d broken into the accuser’s room.)
This creates a culture in which women are responsible for preventing their own rapes. If only she hadn’t gotten so drunk or she hadn’t worn that outfit, the thinking goes, things might have turned out differently. As opposed to: why didn’t he respect boundaries?
But slowly that culture is breaking down, on and off college campuses. The huge outcry over Turner’s light sentence comes amid an unprecedented cultural focus on the rights of sexual-assault victims. In 2014, the Department of Education launched a Title IX investigation into 55 universities after students alleged they were mishandling sexual-assault complaints; today the tally is 192. (Most are ongoing.) That has put increased pressure on schools like Kansas State, Yale and Baylor, which in May fired its football coach and president to ensure assault complaints against athletes are taken more seriously. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, head of a White House campaign to encourage bystanders to intervene in predatory situations, has become a vocal advocate. “We can never say enough to survivors, I believe you. It is not your fault,” he wrote to the Stanford victim.
College students are experimenting with tactics as well, recognizing that official programs may not be enough. Among them: the Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention, which aims to help students educate one another about the dos and don’ts of sexual conduct, so assaults like Turner’s don’t happen again. “Freshmen can skip seminars on assault,” says co-founder Matthew Baiza, a rising junior. “But they can’t really ignore their friends.”
At Dartmouth, four sororities have taken a more radical approach. For insurance reasons, the National Panhellenic Conference, their ruling body, wouldn’t let them throw parties, forcing sisters to go to fraternities, where many felt unsafe. So the houses cut official ties. Now they operate as independent entities backed by Dartmouth, allowing them to make their own party culture. “When we have control over our bar, who comes in and out of our house, we can create a safe space,” says Alanna Kane, president of Sigma Delta, which in the 1980s became the first sorority to disassociate. “It’s kind of instinctive–that responsibility as women, you know, to have each other’s backs.”
This appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of TIME.
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