I was four years old in 1981 when Adam Walsh was kidnapped from a department store and murdered. That tragic incident sparked decades of Stranger Danger rhetoric in my house and schools I attended. Like many kids, I was trained to believe that only deranged, evil-looking strangers perpetrated horrible crimes. I continued to believe that even as my family's most trusted friend sexually abused me for years. He was an upstanding member of the community, one his supporters called him a "man of impeccable character" at his sentencing after he had plead guilty to sexually abusing me for years when I was a child.
The Brock Turner case highlights an important truth: Perpetrators can seem like good guys and they often receive more support than their victims, who generally remain anonymous out of shame and fear. It is not unusual for perpetrators of sex crimes appear to be people of strong character. They are likable. They hold positions of responsibility within the community. They are trusted. When community members hear one of their own is a sexual predator-- perhaps a swim coach, teacher, or star athlete-- they respond with shock and disbelief. "He seemed like such a good guy" is a common refrain.
Here are some of the unbelievable ways Turner's supporters described him in the aftermath of his conviction. Here are the teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, nursing students, and parents who overlooked Brock's crime and touted his strong character. (If you want to read these letters for yourself, they are all available via LATimes.com.)
Kelly Hopkins, Brock's aunt: "After spending 26 years in the military community, I feel I have an excellent grasp of what makes a good person, citizen, and contributor to society." Her assessment? Brock is a good guy. She wrote, "I am the mother of 3 teenage daughters. With the honesty and conviction of every breath I take and every bone in my body, I am writing to tell you that I would trust Brock with their lives." (She also called the rape he perpetrated and its aftermath, "Incredulous circumstances.")
Marianne Pohlmann, family friend: "Brock is a decent, hard working, young man who knows right from wrong."
Meghan Olson, assistant swim coach for the Dayton Raiders: "I appreciate being given this opportunity to speak up on behalf of this young man that I still believe to be a remarkable young person."
Jennifer Jervis, his former French teacher: "I would completely trust Brock Turner with my own daughter."
Anna Weisman, friend: "In many ways I wish I was more like Brock."
Sarah Szumnarski of Oakwood Adapted Athletics: "His family has instilled in him strong values and respect for others... I hope you will keep in mind his supportive family and friends and strong morals when making your decision about his future."
Erika Chick, friend: "Brock is someone special and deserves a second chance. A mistake could have been made however it is so unlike the teammate that I known (sic) since childhood... My parents have even trusted him, over many other high school boys to spend the night in our house numerous times to avoid a long drive before practice."
Abby Rubins, friend: "If you ask me or anyone who knows him, we would tell you that he would never hurt a female (or male) in any way, shape, or form."
Alexandra Lamb, Paws for a Cause: "I hope my words helped you get to know the real Brock Turner, the guy who wouldn't hurt a fly... the guy, who was, and still is, someone with great leadership qualities. Brock was misconstrued as a criminal, which he simply is not."
Beth Johnson, Oakwood High School Registrar, "To this day, I would and will defend the character of Brock Turner."
Brock Turner is not the only perpetrator who has benefited from this aspect of rape culture, receiving effusive praise and deep compassion despite his crimes. Perpetrator-deification happens every day, always at the expense of victims.
Maintaining delusions about the perpetrator's character requires minimizing the seriousness of rape and blaming the victim. It even involves treating the perpetrator as if he were the victim, providing him compassion and support. Clinging to one's unrealistic perception about the perpetrator's character revictimizes the true victim. When people cling to their beliefs about a perpetrator, they put society at risk. They send the message that rape is not a big deal.
Simply put, moral people don't commit rape. Believing otherwise hurts victims and emboldens perpetrators. One of the most dangerous aspects of rape culture is the inability and unwillingness of people to look beyond the perpetrator's personal branding and self-promotion.
It's time to realize that our impressions of people should change when we are presented with more information. If you think someone is a person of stellar character, it is time to change your opinion after he is convicted of sexual assault.