Stanford rapist Brock Turner, who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster last year, has sparked national outrage this month, horrifying onlookers with his unapologetic statement and measly prison sentence. But drawing just as much ire are the people defending him, like his father and childhood friend, who have blamed the former Cub Scout and athlete’s “action” on “party culture.” On booze. On everything but him. After all, they argue, how could such a smart, talented “sweetheart” knowingly do something so terrible?
As their statements have gone viral, the public has rushed to vilify these defenders, and for good reason. But I understand on a deeper level what compelled them to deny Brock’s wrongdoing. Two months ago, I learned that my first love was convicted of rape. I didn’t want to believe it, either.
L and I had always had a messed up relationship—emotionally manipulative from both ends. I kicked him out of my life multiple times, uncharacteristically bitter from years of infractions, serious and minor, beginning in high school. Regardless, the curiosity would always return: What was he doing? Where was he? How was he? I think many people had this kind of early love—the kind that weaves its way into your developing brain and is difficult to rout. After not hearing from him for about a year, this past April, I searched his name on Facebook, hoping that perhaps he had reactivated his account.
The first result: “[Town] Man Accused of Raping 16-Year-Old.”
My face reddened, my heart beat faster. Under the headline was his mugshot—the face I knew so well. I wanted to slap it, in the same way that I felt the headline had slapped me. As a survivor of rape and sexual assault myself, my hands shook as I scrolled through the article. I went to Google, searched his name, his town, for more. I had to know what happened, I had to understand. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, in these initial moments, I was looking for excuses.
He was in his early 20s at the time of the assault, in the summer of 2014. The victim’s father escorted her into court when they brought charges against him. I told myself, “She must have lied to her father to protect herself” and “he must have forced her to bring charges.” L met her when he worked at a restaurant. “He just made another dumb mistake,” I seethed. “He hasn’t changed.” I read descriptions of how he reacted when bail was set, pacing, sitting down and standing up, disrupting the court to ask for bail to be set lower. I could visualize it, see his face, the emotions it was twisting through, how his breathing would sound as if I were next to him in that room.
My shock softened into a familiar anger and frustration. I knew him so well, I could feel every moment, see the day through his eyes. How could he do this to me? I thought, twisted into a ball of conflicting and contorting emotions. I sat in my bed, searching for any scrap about the case in the hours before dawn, trying to understand.
Suddenly, things that had happened the year before made more sense. I had heard from him between the time when charges were brought and his acceptance of a plea deal—he pled guilty for six years probation and a lifetime as a registered sex offender, but no jail time—and I had heard from him around the time of the conviction. I’d wondered why his life had gone off track. After attending a prestigious high school and pre-med program, he had dropped out. He was back living with his mom and working in that same town I had traveled to on long bus rides, the town I had wandered around with him. The last time we had talked, he had told me he loved me for the first time in almost as long as I’ve known him, saying I was the only one who understood him, knew him for who he was. At the time I was repelled and angry and confused. Now this gesture made sense.
After about a day of processing the headlines, I came to the conclusion I stand with today: There are no excuses for what he did. Whether or not this girl consented at the time, she was 16 and not of legal age to consent. What he did was wrong, and he proved that by taking the plea deal. His life will never be the same, the promise his life held is gone, and he is suffering from the consequences of his actions. I want to empathize with him, but I can’t—whatever understanding I have come to, it will never excuse or erase what he did to this stranger.
Ultimately, as a fellow survivor, I have to stand with the anonymous 16-year-old girl. I don’t know her the way I know L, what her face looks like, her story, or even her name—but given what happened, she is more important than him.
It’s difficult to accept that people we know, love, and respect could be rapists or abusers. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people argue that someone accused of rape, assault, or abuse—all crimes based in the violation of consent—made them laugh that one time, or was someone they enjoyed the company of, or “never did anything like that to them.” These memories are touted as if they are some kind of hard proof of innocence.
Ultimately, however, these denials are about ourselves: There is no way we could enjoy the company of someone capable of something so vile and reprehensible as rape. Rapists aren’t human, after all—they are one-dimensional characters that lurk in dark alleyways, knife in hand.
The truth is so much more complicated and harder to accept than that: Rapists are people, and people are multidimensional. They’re people we love—in my case, someone with whom I had some of my first sexual experiences with, who wrote a song for me once, who I tried to help through years of sadness and bitterness. It’s difficult, for sure, but now I have to think about that person who I can so vividly remember waiting across the street from my bus stop, messy hair and a huge smile on his face, as the same person who was convicted of rape and will now spend the rest of his life on a sex offender’s list.
Our ideas of what makes a rapist do not align with those moments—whether they’re a person waiting in the park for you across from the bus stop or the child you quizzed in the car on the way to their weekly spelling test.
It is painful to humanize someone who we also know to be a rapist, because we don’t want to think of rapists as human. If only that were true.
Caitlin Murphy is a writer and consultant who focuses primarily on sexuality-related issues, but is curious about everything: especially good food and the outdoors. Sometimes based out of Philadelphia, other times elsewhere.