When Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, he explained the lenient sentence was partly about avoiding the "severe impact" jail might have on the former Stanford University swimmer.
He also said he did not believe Turner would be a "danger to others." As the Cut noted on Monday, this impression of Turner was probably supported by the letters that friends and family wrote on his behalf. One of those letters, written by a childhood friend of Turner's, and obtained by the Cut, goes like this (emphasis mine):
I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten+ years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.
This may sound like the kind of mental gymnastics the friend of a rapist might perform in order to assure themselves that they would never actually be friends with a rapist, but it is also a pretty common sentiment, this idea of rape without rapists.
After reading the letter, I was reminded of a 2015 study from the University of North Dakota called, "Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse." It's a small study, featuring just 73 men, but it's notable here because it found that respondents were much more likely to endorse rape if researchers did not use the word "rape."
All told, one in three respondents said that they would force a woman to have sex “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.” But when researchers asked the same question, but used the word "rape" instead of descriptive language about forced sex, that number dropped to 13%.
Again, the study is small, but it's part of a larger body of research exploring the difficulty that people have defining and identifying rape. So at the time the study was released, I asked lead researcher Sarah Edwards, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota, to put her own work into some context with that other research.
This is what she told me (emphasis mine):
What research has found in general is that most people are very much able to identify the prototypical rape, which is something along the lines of a woman walks down a dark alley, a strange looking guy jumps out from behind the bush, pulls her into a secluded area and violently rapes her. When you give people that sort of scenario everyone identifies that it’s rape.
But there are many other ways that people are raped in actual life, and some of these are much more grey zones where we don’t all agree where something is a rape. For example, If a woman is raped at a party where she is intoxicated and dressed provocatively. She agrees to go upstairs to a secluded room with a male friend and starts kissing him, but then stops agreeing to the sexual interaction and tries to leave. But she’s really very drunk and lands on the bed again. She passes out and the man has sex with her. Something like that, not everyone would label that as rape… People in society have a harder time classifying those.
This is, notably, the exact distinction made in the letter defending Turner:
This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.
So there is rape, and there are rapists. And then there is "clouded judgment," and our friends—our "idiot boys."
Until we get better at recognizing that these categories are not mutually exclusive, we will continue to find ourselves in this same ugly place. And we will continue to plead shock and ignorance, though we have no such right.