It’s been five months since former Stanford University student Brock Turner was convicted of raping a woman on campus—but in the months since the sentencing, the university has not made any meaningful changes to its sexual assault policies. It did, however, announce on Monday two major updates to its alcohol policy, which has many students and faculty wondering if the timing could really be a coincidence.
Turner’s case entered the national spotlight after a statement his victim read at his sentencing hearing went viral back in June. The 23-year-old woman, who has not been identified, described how Turner, 20, digitally penetrated her unconscious body after a fraternity party next to a campus dumpster, and would have kept going had it not been for two men on bicycles who discovered her and Turner and alerted the police. Despite the evidence, Turner was sentenced to a paltry six months in prison.
In days that followed the letter’s publication, other damning materials became publicly available, including Turner’s own statement to the sentencing judge in which he blamed “party culture and risk taking behavior” for his crime. Now the administration is banning hard alcohol from registered parties and alcohol containers in excess of 750 mL anywhere on campus. The university denies any link between the Turner case and its new policies, but some students and faculty can't help but wonder: Are these updates really the university’s way of avoiding another Turner-like tragedy on campus?
An email sent to the Stanford community on Monday morning (shared with Fusion by a university spokesperson) announced the changes in anticipation of the start of the fall semester. The note was sent by Greg Boardman, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, who referenced discussions that began in early March of this year about “high-risk drinking on campus, particularly in regard to hard alcohol.” Boardman wrote:
Ours should be a community where every member feels a sense of belonging. It is evident that everyone does not currently share this feeling, and we must collectively work to address the root causes. Among the concerns we hear are that some students drink alcohol as a means to overcome social anxiety and others feel alienated by their peers’ drinking, sometimes to the extent that they do not feel welcome in their own houses or organizations. These dynamics are unacceptable to us, as are the range of problems that are too frequently associated with alcohol misuse.
High-risk drinking is not a problem unique to Stanford, but we believe that the strategies we pursue to address the negative consequences of this behavior must be rooted in our particular campus culture and our respect for one another. We trust that you will rise to this challenge so that our campus continues to be a vibrant place of learning and inclusion for all its members.
He went on to briefly outline the two main policy updates: the prohibition of “high-volume distilled liquor containers for undergraduate students and prohibiting hard alcohol at all categories of on-campus parties.” In other words, no handles of Svedka at your next pre-game, and only beer and wine at frat parties. Boardman asked students to “embrace new cultural norms that accurately reflect our commitment both to our values and to campus health and safety.” But the idea that this update will reduce drinking on campus seems at the very least naive, and at the worst, dangerous.
Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber has spent years fighting for sexual assault reform on campus, but has been particularly visible in the wake of Turner’s sentencing as a family friend of the victim and the leader of a campaign to recall the sentencing judge, Aaron Persky. Dauber has no doubt that the revised alcohol policy is the university’s way of addressing the Turner fallout.
“I think that this unfortunately looks like the whole of the university response to the [outcry over the] Brock Turner case,” Dauber told me via phone on Monday, “and if that’s true, this is a really wrongheaded approach. It reflects the university’s misunderstanding of the role of alcohol in sexual assault and a misunderstanding of how students use alcohol.”
Sasha Perigo, an undergraduate student studying computer science and a vocal voice against the university’s handling of sexual assault, shared via email that these alcohol policies were introduced at the end of the last school year to great objections from students. In response, students introduced a referendum to oppose the policy changes, and 91.5% (more than 2,000 students) voted against the hard alcohol ban.
“Since the policy came out this morning, I've interacted with a dozen or so students all of whom are extremely upset,” Perigo told me Monday. “The email announcing the policy spoke about student safety and mental health, yet students see this as disingenuous, as they believe banning hard alcohol will increase binge drinking behind closed doors.”
Dauber, too, shares the concern that the ban on hard alcohol at parties will simply drive consumption underground and into private areas more conducive to sexual assault. She predicts they’ll “drink aggressively at a pregame, and right about the time they get to a party, the force of what they drank will hit them.” This type of aggressive drinking could, Dauber feels, lead to a greater number of alcohol poisoning incidents that will go unreported because students will fear repercussions for reporting. In sum, the opposite of what the university hopes it will achieve.
Separate from anger over the alcohol policy changes is the fact that no other meaningful solutions for helping lower sexual assault on campus have been publicly addressed since the public outcry after the sentencing in June. After the crime occurred in 2015, the university did announce plans for increased education about sexual assault prevention, and for this coming school year, $2.7 million has been earmarked for sexual assault education. The university has not yet announced how exactly it plans on using that money.
Dauber told me that she stopped by the dumpster last week where Turner committed the rape, and additional lighting had still not been installed in the area, despite her recommendation to do so. Nor has the university announced plans to look into fraternity or athletic culture and its ties to campus assault. Perigo added that there “has been a long-standing campaign among students to increase funding for our Counseling and Psychological Services department, as it is understaffed and employees work overtime trying to help students, and the university has refused to cooperate.”
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Stanford is faltering with its handling of the post-Turner era. Early Monday afternoon when I visited a page on the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education’s website titled “Female Bodies and Alcohol,” the language it used raised a number of red flags. One section, “Alcohol affects both sexual intent and aggression,” stuck out:
The link between sexual aggression and alcohol use is multidimensional. Research tells us that women who are seen drinking alcohol are perceived to be more sexually available than they may actually be. Therefore, women can be targeted with unwanted attentions due to that misperception. On study found that, for women, the odds of experiencing sexual aggression were 9 times higher on days of heavy drinking compared to days when the women did not drink. Individuals who are even a little intoxicated are more likely to be victimized than those who are not drinking.
Other research studies have shown that men who think they have been drinking alcohol—even when they have only consumed a placebo—feel sexually aroused and are more responsive to erotic stimuli, including rape scenarios. For some, being drunk serves as a justification for behavior that is demeaning or insulting, including the use of others as sexual objects.
It also addressed how alcohol could lead women to commit “regretted behavior,” which sounds like a line straight out of finishing school.
Curiously, however, when I looked at the page later in the day, the section excerpted above had been deleted and some of the other language modified. When I asked the university spokesperson about the changes, she said she was not aware of the page or its updates.
In Turner’s letter to the judge, he wrote, “I know I can show people who were like me the dangers of assuming what college life can be like without thinking about the consequences one would potentially have to make if one were to make the same decisions that I made…I want to demolish the assumption that drinking and partying are what make up a college lifestyle I made a mistake, I drank too much, and my decisions hurt someone.”
When you put the university’s language and Turner’s side-by-side, the similarities are enough to give one pause. Dauber said that the school seems to have adopted the now-criminally charged student’s view of the campus culture, which she called “dangerous."
“This will not work,” Dauber said. “It looks like the university is protecting its image at the risk of student safety.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the university's response to sexual assault after Brock Turner's February 2015 crime.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.