What IS and What is Not Remarkable About the Stanford Rape Case


…And What We Can Do About It

Since first reading the victim impact statement written by the survivor of the Stanford Rape Case late on Friday night, I have been inundated with emails, calls, and conversations from friends, family, and colleagues about this story. I have rarely seen a story about sexual assault that doesn’t involve a celebrity capture the attention of the public the way this one has. I’ve struggled with how to lend my voice to this dialogue in a way that will inspire constructive conversation, rather than leaving folks feeling more hopeless or upset. I know too many survivors who, after hearing stories like these that show the failure of our justice system and painful examples of the rape culture we live in, decided not to report or even tell anyone what happened to them.

In my remarks at our Annual Meeting last week I talked about how often stories in the media leave us feeling more afraid rather than empowered. My hope in writing this blog is to help broaden this conversation, while also leaving us all with a call to action. Feeling sad, afraid, and angry after hearing a story like this one is natural. My hope is that we can channel our anger into action. We should be angry about the outcome of this case. We should be outraged that this rape happened at all. We should be angered about the role that race and class have played in this case, and in countless other cases.  I hardly need to wonder what the sentence might have looked like had the offender not been a white male athlete at a private school, had he been a person of color from a less affluent area. If this had happened in a city, or in a low income neighborhood instead of on the prestigious campus of Stanford University, would the media be paying any attention at all? Rape is occurring every single day- but how often does the media pay attention to it the way this story is being covered? If we want to honor this amazing survivor and all the survivors whose stories we will never hear or read online, we should keep talking and demanding change long after this story is no longer in the headlines.

As I have shared in previous blogs, before joining REACH as the Director of Prevention Programs, I worked as a sexual assault counselor for a rape crisis center in San Mateo County, California for five years. In that role I provided medical and legal advocacy to dozens of survivors. I sat in hospital exam rooms, legal interviews, district attorney’s offices, court rooms. I held the hands and listened to countless stories from survivors. I hold these stories in my heart and I recognize how lucky I am to have known so many survivors and to have heard their stories and experiences. Some of what I learned from them is this:

What happened behind a dumpster on Stanford’s Campus in January, 2015 was horrific but it was not unique. What was exceptional about this was that:

  1. Bystanders intervened- not just stopping the assault, but chasing the perpetrator down and holding him there until the police arrived. Far too often bystanders turn the other way when they see a sexual assault occurring or about to occur. I wonder how many people saw this young man dragging this survivor to the dumpster. How many people at the party witnessed his behavior towards her and other women? How many opportunities were missed when someone could have stepped in and stopped this horrendous crime from occurring at all? 
  1. This case went to trial, and this rapist was found guilty of all 3 felony charges by a jury. Only a quarter of all reported rapes lead to an arrest, only a fifth lead to prosecution, and only half of those prosecutions result in felony convictions. Throughout my career, I have seen too many cases that seemed like a clear-cut legal case not filed by a district attorney or cases with overwhelming evidence where rapists were found not guilty. This is one of the most powerful and devastating examples of rape culture. I only have to look down the road from Stanford to DeAnza College for an example of this. In 2007, a 17-year-old woman was gang raped by 9 members of the DeAnza Baseball team. Three female students witnessed the rape and broke a door down to stop it and get the survivor to the hospital. At the time she was admitted, her blood alcohol content (BAC) level was .32- the next morning, she had no memory of what happened to her. Given the facts- that the survivor was below the age of consent in California, that her BAC was four times the legal limit, and that there were 3 eye witnesses to her assault- it seemed like a clear cut case for the prosecution. And yet the District Attorney of Santa Clara County did not file any charges against any of the men involved. This is just one example- there are so many more stories like these that I could share with you. And yet I fear that these stories, while important to recognize, dissuade survivors from coming forward. 

When people of privilege (white, upper class men) commit sexual crimes against women, the woman’s past becomes the focus of the defense and the public discourse, while the rapist’s potential is prioritized. It’s evident in this story when you hear how often the survivor was asked about her sexual history and previous experiences with drinking, and that the judge justified his sentencing by focusing on the possible future achievements of this rapist. It should also be noted that this case, like so many others, is one in which alcohol is simultaneously used to hold the survivor culpable for her own victimization, and exonerate the rapist for his behavior. If someone was too intoxicated or traumatized to know/remember what happened to them, it should be seen as evidence that they did not consent. Yet in this case, and in DeAnza and so many others the fact that they did not remember was used to portray that their assault was consensual.  Alcohol does not cause rape. Many of us have been drunk before but the vast majority of us do not choose to hurt someone physically or sexually when inebriated. Those who do are making a choice to hurt someone, and often knowingly using alcohol to facilitate their assault. If not held accountable for their actions, they will hurt someone else. And someone else. And someone else.

So now that we are all paying attention, what do we do with this? This story is dominating news outlets and many of our social media timelines and conversations. But in a couple weeks, there will be new headlines, new conversations. What can we all do with all of the outrage this story has evoked? How do we channel outrage into action? A few suggestions:

  1. Believe survivors. This story is very triggering and has inspired many survivors to disclose. You don’t have to be a professional advocate to listen, believe, and validate.
  2. Challenge rape culture by speaking up. Even if it’s presented as a harmless joke, talk with the people around you why rape is never, ever funny and not something to minimize or dismiss. If you see something that doesn’t feel right to you- on a personal level, watching an interaction at a party that seems uncomfortable or on a more systemic level as you observe and think critically about the media’s portrayal of sexual and domestic violence and our justice system’s response to it- speak up. Lend your voice to help inspire change.
  3. Talk about consent and healthy sexuality.
  4. Honor the silent stories. This survivor’s voice is being heard around the world. There are many survivors whose stories will never be heard or brought to your attention. They may be your co-workers, your friends, your relatives… we often don’t know who in our lives have been impacted by sexual violence because of the stigma that surrounds this issue discourages them from sharing. Think about how you approach these conversations with this in mind.